Dengue Fever – Cannibal Courtship

January 01, 1970



Dengue Fever
started out paying tribute to sixties Cambodian pop music, which in itself was
inspired by ‘60s Western garage rock wedded to the melodies of Southeast Asia. The influence of Ethiopian jazz brought
them to the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken
film a few years back, which led to more Americans paying attention
to them for their third album, Venus on
in 2008. That was the first time the band sang any songs in English,
one of which, “Tiger Phone Card,” proved so charming and beguiling that it
became the template for  even more
English-language material on the new Cannibal


Ethan and Zac Holtzman (keyboards & guitar, respectively) formed Dengue
Fever some ten years ago after a trip to Cambodia exposed them to all this
music which seemed so exotic yet so familiar at the same time. They lucked into
vocalist Chhom Nimol, who had recently emigrated from there to Los Angeles, and the band began covering the songs
which probably set her parents or grandparents to dancing in discotheques back
in the day.


compositions in that style, seeded by Ethiopian influences brought in by
saxophonist David Ralicke (who had played with the likes of Beck and Ozomatli)
were the next order of the day, but there was only so far an American band,
even fronted by a vocalist who sings in the Khmer language, could take with an
approach so rooted in the past. Cannibal
retains everything that has made Dengue Fever so distinctive –
the chattering garage-influenced guitar licks, the Farfisa-sounding keyboards,
the minor-key horn charts, the intricate yet perfectly accented rhythms, and of
course the ethereal vocals of Nimol – but it sounds entirely contemporary in a world
in which indie rock bands can win Grammy Awards.


Not that
there’s anything remotely similar to the work of Arcade Fire in Dengue Fever,
just a similar attention to compositional complexity. You can strip all the
parts out of a Dengue Fever song, and each one would be well-formed yet
slightly mundane on its own – but put them all together, and you’ve got reasons
to be entranced. Dengue Fever songs are catchy and hummable, especially in the
hook-filled choruses, but it’s the layers connecting all the instruments and
vocal parts which attract the most attention as you listen.


Nimol is
still the lead singer of Dengue Fever, but Zac Holtzman’s weary and somewhat
static voice rates as nice contrast to her ability to sling melodies around the
top of her vocal range. The two complement each other especially effectively on
“Cement  Slippers,” an anthemic lament
about incompatibility fueled by a fidgety guitar riff that might be the album’s
hookiest moment. Holtzman takes the lead on “2012 (Bury Our Head),” but the
harmony vocals, provided by Nimol and what’s billed as the Living Sisters (a
trio which includes singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell), have almost a Jefferson
Airplane styled feel of casual connection. Nimol sings the title track,
“Cannibal Courtship,” built on the romantic metaphor of the praying mantis,
with a particularly convincing otherworldliness.


It’s hard to
believe the song “Mr. Bubbles” was written and recorded well before the
situation with the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster, but these lyrics are
eerily prescient: “Dive in the ocean / It’s warm off the shore / That cools off
the core / We had a melt down / But now it’s under control / And no one needs
to know.” Similarly, “Family Business” is appropriate to today’s headlines,
with its punning suggestion of a missile building corporation shooting off into
the air for an heir. Business is always good for those who make weapons.


Of course,
Nimol sings two songs completely in Khmer, the beautiful “Uku,” and the dance
feverish “Durian Dowry.” “Only a Friend” has the unusual structure of Khmer for
her verses and English for Holtzman’s choruses; this song also benefits from
the best horn parts of the album.


Dengue Fever
has gotten more and more attention as they’ve widened their sound. Cannibal Courtship has the potential to
break them through to top-line indie status. It couldn’t happen to a more
intriguing or more musically delightful outfit.


DOWNLOAD: “Cement Slippers,” “Family Business,”
“Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius.” STEVE PICK

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