It would be really easy to write off Dengue Fever as a novelty band. After all, their fusion of California surf rock, Ethiopian jazz, and 1960s Cambodian pop is anything but mainstream — much of it is sung in lead vocalist Chhom Nimol’s native Khmer language — and not likely to start any new trends. That’s just as well, however, as I can’t imagine another group delivering this kind of music quite as well as Dengue Fever.
The band, started in 2001 by brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman as a vehicle to keep alive the spirit of the aforementioned ’60s Cambodian pop, releases their fourth full-length studio album (and first for Concord Music Group’s Fantasy imprint), Cannibal Courtship, today. It’s a subtle refinement of the sound Dengue Fever has been cultivating for a decade and it’s a pleaser in every way.
The main attraction for me, fantastic arrangements aside, continues to be Nimol’s vocals. Her powerful and piercing soprano infuses every song she takes lead on with an exotic beauty and beguiling charm that can make any mortal man weak in the knees. When she sings, “Kiss me goodbye / You’re just another stamp in my passport” over the propulsive, disco beat of ‘Thank You Goodbye,” I can imagine myself finding a note from her on my pillow and still being thankful just to get a whiff of her perfume.
That effect is lessened — although only by the slightest of degrees — when Nimol sings in English. I guess there’s something to be said for the mystery of vocals in another language, even when you have the lyric sheet handy.
Backing Nimol is a set of perhaps Dengue Fever’s most accomplished and textured songs. The opening title cut opens with a slow, languid beat and Zac Holtzman’s hypnotic guitar before the chorus explodes in a haze of distorted guitars, horns, and percussion. And is that the always enjoyable Eleni Mandell (as part of the Living Sisters) singing backup? Why yes it is. Bonus! Up next is the lead single, “Cement Slippers,” featuring shared lead vocals from Nimol and Holtzman. It’s both silky smooth and gritty, depending on who’s singing, and is punctuated by a blistering saxophone solo in the bridge, courtesy David Ralicke. And what’s not to love about cheeky verses like, “My girlfriend loves everything at the beach / except the water, the sand, and the sun.”?
If there’s one thing that seems different about Dengue Fever this time around, it’s a greater emphasis on rhythm. They were never a stiff band by any stretch, but on multiple occasions I found myself wishing I was on the dance floor. And that I could dance. Credit the rhythm section of bassist Senon Williams and drummer Paul Dreux Smith with turning songs like “Family Business” and “Only a Friend” into irresistible nuggets of foot-tapping glee. The latter of the two, incidentally, is my favorite track so far. Nimol’s lilting Khmer verses and the damn tasty chord changes in the choruses are a joy to behold.
In short, there’s really no way to lose by picking up a copy of Cannibal Courtship. You can impress your friends with how worldly you are, and score one of the better album released so far this year in the process.