Dengue Fever’s “Cannibal Courtship” continues alt-rock Cambodian-influenced band’s evolution

Dengue Fever

It’s a curious conceit of rock critics that we love being the early adopters who discover great new talent, but we want that talent to stay exactly as we found it, as if the music is some sort of archeological treasure, suspended in amber for the ages. We can’t imagine a musician might continue along an evolutionary progression and grow and mature artistically. Or worse, we dismiss artists we like when they become too popular, as if being adopted by a wider, mainstream audience taints artistic credibility.

I know I’ve been guilty of both. I dismissed Joni Mitchell past “Miles of Aisles” as becoming too arty (as if her earliest, brittle folk gems weren’t also arty to the extreme). I blew off Bruce Springsteen once he sold a bazillion copies of “Born in the USA.” The fact is, most music critics are snobs, and we’re proud of it. Over the years since I “retired” from being a full-time music critic, I’ve mellowed and accepted that I have biases (old-fart biases at that), and see how I blocked out good music by being an obstinate butthead.

So I was surprised when I realized I still fall back on snob instincts with new music from time to time. These days I rarely write about any music unless it’s related to my interests in Asian culture or Asian American community.

I’ve written in the past (here and here), for instance, about Dengue Fever, an alt-rock band from California that was formed by a pair of white brothers who fell in love with Cambodian rock of the 1960s, and found a Cambodian singer to help them meld that sound with surf and psychedelic music.

For years I’ve been intrigued by the band’s globe-hopping musicality and especially enchanted by singer Chhom Nimol’s slinky, elastic vocals, which snakes through melodies with the tonality and scale of traditional Cambodian folk and pop songs.

In a word, though I hesitate to use it because it’s such a loaded symbol of Orientalism, objectifying Asian culture and people, my attraction to Dengue Fever is in large part because of Nimol’s exoticism.

There, I’ve said it.
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Dengue Fever’s effortless grace in “Sleepwalking through the Mekong” epitomizes Asian American synthesis

Dengue Fever, an Asian American band featuring a Cambodian American singer and European American musicians.

I loved watching Dengue Fever’s new documentary, “Sleepwalking through the Mekong,” and listening to the great music by the band as well as some of its antecedents collected on the soundtrack.

I’ve written about Dengue Fever before, but didn’t get a chance to see the show when they played Denver on a tour. So I’m glad this documentary has been released.

The film follows the band on a 2006 visit to Cambodia, where singer Chhom Nimol was born. She moved to the U.S. where she was discovered singing in a karaoke bar in Long Beach, south of LA, by the Holtzman brother, Zac and Ethan. The Holtzmans had fallen in love with old recordings of Cambodian pop and rock music during a trip to Southeast Asia and had decided to perform that music in America.

Since they — and the rest of the band — are white, they went in search of someone who could sing in the Cambodian language, Khmer, and came across Nimol, who’s an enchanting singer with a strong voice and an undeniable beauty that practically glows whenever the camera focuses on her.

Together, over four albums, two EPs and now this documentary film, the group has recorded a body of work that’s consistently interesting, compelling and challenging, with its dreamy mix of psychedelia, folk-rock, surf music and Cambodian melodies.

The end result, for me, is a perfect expression of that tired cliche, “East meets West,” or better yet, a reflection of one aspect of Asian America.

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