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The Hype: This isn't the story of a nasty mosquito-borne tropical disease which causes rash and vomiting. Rather, it's the story of how five American males with no aesthetic appeal–but plenty of musical chops–brought a beautiful Cambodian karaoke singer named Chhom Nimol into their fold and made a name for themselves. Los Angeles-based, world-pop group Dengue Fever frequently rehash pop songs from 1960's Cambodia, a country known primarily for bearing an illegal American military incursion (and a subsequent run-in with genocidal super-villain Pol Pot).
The band has recorded three full-length albums since 2003. Distributed
outside of the U.S. and Canada by Peter Gabriel's Real World Records,
the band was the subject of a documentary in 2009 by filmmaker John
Pirozzi entitled Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. In the flick, the
band is shown packaging well-worn vintage Khmer pop,
and re-gifting it to the Cambodian masses. Last Saturday night, they
brought this same music to the masses once again, but instead of the
temples of Angkor Wat, they visited the strip-mall encased splendor of
Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar.
The Show: Some music journalists have referred to Dengue Fever's
pastiche approach to performance as novel. They may be right. But
whether Dengue Fever is a novelty act or not, this band's live show is
beyond reproach. For an hour and 20 minutes, these six performers tore
through a lively set of tunes that straddled the line between a vintage
James Bond film score and any number of Tarantino movies anchored within
a musical matrix of beach-blanket surf-rock. Leading the charge, clad
in a turquoise and black sequined dress and high heels, dwarfed by the
males in the group, singer Chhom Nimol sang in a high register that
while at times sounded child-like, threatened to tear the speakers with its
forceful resonance. A couple of songs were sung in English, such as
“Tiger Phone Card” off 2008's Venus on Earth, but the songs
in Khmer were the most pleasing to the ear. There was
something irresistible about the way the words rolled off of Nimol's
tongue; along with the unique rhythm of Khmer enunciation, it was so foreign to
the average American ear. Her deftness with the language
augmented this effect. Highlights of the set included “Lost in Laos” off
the band's 2003 self titled-debut album, as well as “A-Go-Go” which is
available as a digital download. During the latter song, the diminutive
Nimol would stretch the mic out to the crowd, encouraging audience
members to sing the chorus. Throughout the set, she would sway and dance, occasionally twirling her elegant hands. Gorgeous and sexy, yet
not bumptiously so, she always seemed to be holding something in
reserve, giving her a slight aura of aloofness. As for the musicianship
of the other members, everybody was a star, yet none seemed to shine
brighter than the other. Even when saxophonist David Ralicke was wailing
on a serpentine lick, it served to augment the intensity of what
everybody else was doing. It would be interesting to see what this band
could do if backed by a full-on brass orchestra and backup singers.
Fever was preceded by Los Angeles band Pocahaunted. What can I say
about this neo-hippy garbage? Truly awful. Devendra Banhart has ruined a
generation of musicians. Sharing vocal duties were two girls from Eagle
Rock. Have you ever seen the movie Poltergeist? Remember the scene where the
little girl gets sucked into the TV and she's calling out to her mom?
The reverb saturated caterwauling of the two lead singers sort of
sounded like that. And the convulsive jerking motions of one of the
vocalists was so irritating, it was unnerving. It was reminiscent of
Edward Sharpe vocalist Jade Castrinos' herky-jerky and overtly
pretentious performance style. I couldn't stop thinking about the failed
social experiment of the flower generation and the hope that some
powerful force will extinguish the embers of that dying fire which
continue to smolder to this day. Boo!
of indie-music being what it is today (thanks to bands like
Pocahaunted), Dengue Fever's performance made me wonder if novelty and
pastiche is where the future of music lies.