With cannibalism largely banished to the holy men of the River Ganges and the odd rogue German, one can only imagine what the mating rituals of such flesh-eaters might sound like. But it’s safe to assume they’d be harder on the ears than what critics are calling Dengue Fever’s fourth and finest release.
“Cannibal Courtship,” far from channeling the rhythmic chomping of human flesh, is a kaleidoscopic cocktail of 1960s Cambodian pop and American surf-rock, garnished with a lively dash of Afro groove and garage psych. The ensemble’s first studio album since 2008’s Venus on Earth, it wouldn’t sound out of place in an Austin Powers film or at one of Ken Kesey’s infamous acid tests. This is truly the stuff that psychedelic dreams are made of.
Dubbed “a cross between Led Zeppelin and Blondie” by Ray Davies from the Kinks, the band, based in Los Angeles, traces its genesis back to 2001. Brothers Ethan (keyboards) and Zac (guitar) Holtzman, inspired by the unique spin Khmer culture had put on rock music, recruited saxophonist David Ralicke, drummer Paul Smith and bassist Senon Williams before going on the hunt for a Cambodian singer.
Enter Chhom Nimol, whose exotic, hypnotic vocals (she sings in both English and her native Khmer) had regularly entertained Cambodian royalty.
“Before, it was partly Cambodian and partly Indie rock,” bassist Williams says of Dengue Fever’s evolution. “Now it’s 100 per cent both. We’ve been friends and a band for a long time and everything has led to this moment. It’s all us and all focused; that’s the vibe, from beginning to end.”
What constitutes “us” is a kinetic, mood-altering sound that swings from spooky vocals to spiky rock in an East-West fusion as infectious as the tropical malady from which the band takes its name.
Drummer Smith, who mixed “Cannibal Courtship,” considers their latest venture a study in the very essence of groove.
“Things are just going through our filter now and we’re no longer questioning what the filter is. The result is music that does have a distinct feel and sound but still encompasses what people know us for. Senon and I made a concerted effort to get to the rhythmic essence — even more than in the past. We felt like stripping everything down and trying to create a really strong foundation. Not making it simple, per se, but getting to the heart of the groove and letting that shine. With this new material, we’ve really found the space to be ourselves without worrying that things have to be this or that. That’s what allowed us to unleash what we had inside.”
And shine they have: Dengue Fever has been heard on HBO’s “True Blood” (the band is a favourite of lead vampire Bill Compton), Showtime’s “Weeds,” a National Geographic documentary and “Dirty Sanchez,” the British equivalent of “Jackass.” The band has also surfaced on the big screen: for the Cambodia-based drama “City of Ghosts,” star Matt Dillon invited them to contribute a version of Joni Mitchell’s classic “Both Sides Now.”
Don’t miss Dengue Fever’s globe-trotting brand of eclecticism, complete with thick organ grooves, horns and reeds, biting electric guitar and tight rhythm section, when the band touches down in Phnom Penh after an extended tour of the US and Europe.
(Words by LJ Snook. Photo by Lauren Dukoff)