There's a slightly knotty context to sift through when it comes to Dengue Fever's tribute to the dislocatedly rocking musical styles of Cambodia circa early '70s. The L.A.-based band, featuring Cambodian thrush Chhom Nimol, tips a semifaithful hat to the weird mishmash of lovey-dovey lounge pop, skanky surf-spy, gnarly garage and whimsical psychedelia of the Cambodian sound, but they've got to accomplish it in a way that's not just aping the original — that'd be fun, but sort of patronizing — and anyway the “original” did ape American and English rock with usually quite warped results.
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On their third album, Venus on Earth, Dengue pull off the sincere-but-shticky trick with righteous aplomb by expanding the music's lyrical subject matter, focusing on melody, not groove, and sprucing up the recorded sound just a tad. Whereas the music that first inspired founders Ethan and Zac Holtzman was found on cruddy old cassettes unearthed in the dusty back corners of fish markets in Phnom Penh, on Dengue's albums the band gives it a clean, new documenting that highlights the basics of the '70s sound — Farfisa organ or cheapo synth, greasy Strats, hammily honking sax, and especially the vocalists' enchanting, birdlike warbles, so high-pitched and echo-drenched as to sound like the CD's playing on the wrong speed.
Swirly-slow Farfisa-laced psychedelia in “Seeing Hands” and the twangy noir of “Clipped Wings” frame Nimol's startlingly pure-toned Khmer-language singing in smoky clouds of time and place; “Tiger Phone Card” finds Nimol and Zac dueting (“Never let go!”) in English atop nicely cheesy echo box trailing off her voice — cue far-out guitar solo as Nimol hops 'round in flowered mini and shiny thigh-high boots.
Never self-consciously avant-garde, Dengue prefer to create a parallel reality, heard to special effect on “Woman in the Shoes” (well, you know what she means), with the arrangements interlocking minimal parts among greasy guitars, creaky keys and David Ralicke's funky trumpets and saxes. The minor-key air of the excellently titled “Monsoon of Perfume” engulfs the mind by way of Manzarek-like electric piano and an evocative vintage-synth solo squiggle. The instrumental “Oceans of Venus” (another first-rate title) fuses horn lines with clubby organ and surfy guitar: Please enjoy that highly desirable aura of deep-orange sunset over Malibu in 1972 — or perhaps the Mekong.
Recently Dengue Fever went back to Cambodia and performed in front of huge throngs of rabid fans, who regarded them as conquering heroes. Since the fascination to American ears lies in how the Cambodians got Western pop so wrong in the '70s, one can only savor the thought of possible future mutations by a new generation of Cambodian rockers tipping their hats back once more.