Music Reviews
Cannibal Courtship

Dengue Fever Cannibal Courtship

(Fantasy) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

I can’t have been the only person  charmed into purchasing Escape From Dragon House – the second album by Dengue Fever - on the strength an early press shot of the group.  The photograph in question was taken in a room where sunlight streams in through honeycombed window shutters. The band’s Cambodian singer - Chhom Nimol - is dressed in a floral silk dress with her hair up, like some beauty from the 1950s. Next to her a young Arabic man in a turban, shirt and tie, resembles an eastern secret agent posing as a salesman. Standing at the back there’s a bearded English folk singer from the mid 20th century, smartly turned out in a flat cap and waistcoat. An even more impressively bearded figure wearing a pair of opaque goggles is channelling the spirit of a 1940s sci-fi hero straight out of the pages of a pulp novel. The sextet is completed by a handsome man dressed in a burnt orange shirt and a dark suit, and a shaven head gentleman in shades and a flamboyant, light brown jacket whose broad lapels are decorated with the embroidered likeness of a tree. Looking at this disparate group of individuals you could only have cause to wonder what kind of music they played and would it be as good as their image?

Dengue Fever formed in LA in 2001 Initially they were a covers band specialising in 1960s Cambodian pop songs. It could have easily been  a gimmick with a limited shelf life had they not started writing original material in a similar vein. Their fourth album - Cannibal Courtship - blends the group’s Cambodian inspirations with Latin American rhythms, a surf pop twang, some brazen honking sax and a light dash of 1960s psychedelia. Its bi -lingual identity and tendency to veer between the personal and the geo-political makes the listening experience rather like staring at a collage of newspaper cuttings from the local and international press, where stories of female arms dealers and far-fetched conspiracy theories rub up against more personal tales of squabbling, ill-matched couples and needy predatory women.

Nimol sings predominantly in her native Khmer - a language better suited than English to expressing the deepest, inner-most yearnings of the human heart. The languid ballad - Sister In The Radio - is a mournful lament for a long-absent sibling. You can imagine it snaking out of one of the tiny towns that line the waterways of Mekong Delta, with their red and white radio masts and sporadic power cuts.

She’s equally expressive on Only A friend where something about the nuances of her performance tells you that some of her lines are being sung as asides. The song is an estranged duet with Zac Holtzman in which neither share the same space and the emotional distance between the pair is spelled-out by their failure to perform in the same language.

In the verses Nimol reassures herself of her intention to remain faithful to her absent partner in the face of a blossoming, emotionally satisfying platonic relationship:

“He’s just a friend, you’re on tour in Europe, he bought me dinner but only as friends...”

Holtzman is more brazen about his infidelities as he channels the spirit of David Byrne in a chorus that sounds like it wandered away from a Talking Heads song. The line “I’m overseas flirting with girls and catching diseases” is followed by a triumphant fanfare. A strange military tempo, strewn with lively drum fills and shuffles holds the whole thing together.

Another high point - Thank You Goodbye - sounds like some long-forgotten 1970s disco gem, as if an Asian pop svengali, wowed by ABBA but lacking access to the Swede’s Wagnerian production techniques never-the-less decided to have a go at making something similar.

The only real misstep comes with 2012 (Bury Our Heads). After an amusing opening observation that maybe the Mayan prediction of the world ending in 2012 was the result of the ancient civilisation running out of space for any more carvings, it dives headlong into ham-fisted apocalyptic imagery. It’s redeemed by Kiss Of The Bufo Alvarius - a sultry South American instrumental whose title is a nod to a species of psychotropic toad.

Four albums into their career and Dengue Fever show no signs of running short of ideas. They continue to blend an expanding catalogue of global influences with intuitive ease, into music that’s fun and entertaining but also has a heart. This former covers band have blossomed into a group of true originals.