Listening Booth: Dengue Fever, “Venus on Earth”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

Many seem eager to send bands like Vampire Weekend to the firing line for their afro-pop-lite brand of indie rock. For those on the often thankless crusade for authenticity, meet Dengue Fever. This up-and-coming LA sextet making Cambodian pop-inspired music is fronted by Chhom Nimol, a woman who’s actually Cambodian.

Though words like fusion and cross-over have an immediate tendency to turn off anyone but the most adventurous listener, it would be hard to describe Dengue Fever’s Venus on Earth in any other way. Not only is this their general aesthetic, it seems to be the theme of the album — at least as far as a non-Khmer speaker can deduce.

Khmer is the dominant language on Venus on Earth, but two songs are sung in English, while a handful of the others contain short English phrases scattered about. This may disappoint old fans, as the addition of English is a recent one, but in a way it actually adds to the band’s mystique instead of subtracting from it. Why were these tracks sung in English instead? What it is that they’re trying to convey, if anything?

Dengue Fever, “Tiger Phone Card” (download)

The first English track, “Tiger Phone Card,” is sung as a duet with guitarist and lead songwriter Zac Holtzman, with the two alternating solo then joining for the chorus. It tells of the woes of a long distance relationship, with each partner expressing their frustrations in verse before professing their ultimate need to just be together in person (“the first thing that I do / is throw my arms around you / and never let go”).

“Sober Driver” is also sung as an alternating duet. Nimol plays the role of a woman who’s drunk at a party and sucks up to a guy because she needs a ride, and Holtzman fills in as the poor schmuck she always turns to. Unlike most poor schmucks, however, Holtzman puts his foot down, and replies, “I’m getting tired of being treated as just a free ride / I finally figured out that you’re just a thorn in my side / that’s withered, dull, and dry.”

There’s enough English in “Tooth and Nail” to decipher that it’s about fighting to end up with a man she loves even though he’s married or about to be. Otherwise, non-Khmer speakers are left with just a few clues. The ballad “Monsoon of Perfume” ends with the words “nobody knows,” and “Woman in the Shoes” is interspersed with different lines starting with “close to me.”

Though English speakers will undoubtedly be pulled to the English tracks first, there’s plenty to appreciate and explore within Venus on Earth. The band’s diversity isn’t just found in their languages of choice. Musically, Dengue Fever pulls not only from ’60s Cambodian pop, but from other exotica, psychedelic and surf bands, with snippets of other sub-genres here and there. As if to prove they can really do it all, they even throw in an instrumental track that’s actually worth listening to more than once.

Dengue Fever, “Integration” (download)

Nimol’s voice particularly shines on “Integration,” a word that could easily represent Venus on Earth‘s dominant themes. In the spirit of unity, lay down your weapons and open your arms to Dengue Fever. They’re the real deal.