Recently the Cambodian psych-rock band Dengue Fever celebrated the official release of a new album, Cannibal Courtship and the start of a new promotional tour. With an appearance at Rhino Records in Claremont, California looming in the near future, it seemed like a good time for your crusty chronicler to sit down and give a listen to their latest CD and ask a few questions, too. Formed in 2001 this unique indie band consists of: vocalist Chhom Nimol, keyboardist Ethan Holtzman, guitarist and vocalist Zac Holtzman, bassist Senon Williams, drummer Paul Smith and David Ralicke on horns and woodwinds.
For those of you not up on this Los Angeles-based band, the group took its name from an experience keyboardist Ethan Holtzman had in Cambodia. Holtzman explains: “I was in Cambodia riding in the back of a pickup truck from Siam Reap to Phnom Penh. It was a long dirt road and all of the bridges had been blown up from war. I sat scrunched up in a little ball with thirty something villagers, some of them holding their carsick babies, others wearing a motorcycle helmet grasping on to their rooster in this rusty old truck with bald tires. The driver drove fast and hard listening to a cassette tape of old Cambodian songs from the 60’s. My friend sat up front pale with dengue fever.”
Cannibal Courtship is their first new CD since the release of their 2008 disc, Venus on Earth. This 11-track album is a refreshing blend of Cambodian sounds, surf rock and psych rock with lyrics sung in both English and the Cambodian language Khmer. Keyboardist Holtzman feels this “new album Cannibal Courtship sounds the best of any of our other recordings.”
The band brought on a few guests to help flesh out this self-produced piece including: Gordon “Nappy G” Clay on percussion and The Living Sisters—Alex Lily, Eleni Mandell and Beck Stark—on backing vocals. The album opens strongly with the title track, “Cannibal Courtship”. This one is highlighted by slinky, slow guitar riffs and a cookin’ bass line . . . not to mention the chorus cry of “Be my sacrificial lamb!”
Their much touted single, “Cement Slippers”, is next and is full of the band’s unusual, energetic signature sound. This is a slightly dark, driven tune that is very reminiscent of the B-52s or even at some point vaguely like Morphine on vacation. It was surely a great choice for a music video—no doubt.
Nimol’s work is perhaps truly at its best on the following track, “Uku”. This one features her soulful, versatile vocals over distinctive instrumental work tinged with a definite Cambodian influence. The digitized flute adds something here that makes the cut interesting and adds something new to the band’s sound repertoire.
Next up is a fan favorite, “Family Business”. This one is somewhat like a blend between the aforementioned B-52s and Franz Ferdinand. What makes this song noteworthy are the harmonies, the humorous lyrics and a fun call-and-response style chorus.
“Only A Friend” follows here. With some undulating percussion and more unique surf-like music, this track also takes on a sound similar to Yeasaver. It has a nice almost jazz-like bridge and may be one of the tracks that require multiple listens to fully appreciate all the influences.
“Sister In The Radio” is the next number. This is another track praised by some online critics for various reasons. It is reminiscent of the lead-in in that it returns to that quiet, creepy sound and memorable bass work and slow guitar riffs. This is one of several cuts on the album that are ripe for use in a TV or movie soundtrack.
While a few rock journalists pass over “2012 (Bury Our Heads)” as one of the weaker tracks on the disc or mere filler, your crusty chronicler thinks it still fits into that whole surf music thing for which they are known. If anything, it might make one wonder why it’s titled 2012 since we’re already almost there. Predictions made on a song released less than a year before might make the song lyrics a bit too timely perhaps but there are much worse tracks out there—for sure!
The next song is “Kiss Of The Bufo Alvarius”. Just the title alone is reminiscent of some old action-adventure film. Again, more music reminiscent of the B-52s and yet still uniquely their own thanks to the band’s Cambodian touch. While a few critics found the melody lacking your rascally reviewer is so taken with Nimol’s performance that the overall groove is all that matters.
Speaking of Nimol, Critic’s choice here goes to “Thank You Goodbye”. This is your randy reviewer’s theme song . . . or it would be were it sung by a man rather than the lovely Nimol. (Why can’t women just say thanks for the good time, shower and say “goodbye”?) With a bit of the same musical backdrop as the previous track, this cut includes another good bassline and a dance beat reminiscent of a band (some may not recall) named Kraftwerk. Your crusty critic cannot speak for all men but there have got to be a lot of guys out there that wouldn’t care about just being another stamp in Nimol’s passport! Don’t get stuck on her though, guys, because keyboardist Holtzman will tell you she’s his sister. (It’s an “in joke”—read the related articles if you haven’t yet.) This should have been the closing cut.
“Mr. Bubbles”, the next to last cut, has more of that Cambodian flavor and yet still reminiscent of bands like Franz Ferdinand. The highlights here include more of the surf music influence, almost ethereal vocals, a good melody and nice keyboard work.
All too quickly the album ends with the closing cut, “Durian Dowry”. “Durian Dowry” steps things up in terms of musical composition. It has more of the band’s distinct, foreign sound as well an interesting hook. Complete with more of Nimol’s ethereal vocals, this is a nice finish to the overall recording. If listening to Cannibal Courtship leaves you wanting more, Dengue Fever will be making an appearance at Rhino Records in Claremont, CA on August 13th at 4:00 pm. Come and get it!
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.