Dengue Fever's new album, their third full-length record, is called Venus on Earth.
Some of today's best world music acts spring from the discovery of an obscure passion. For brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, it was 1960s Cambodian pop music — Khmer tunes at once delicate and brash, with a carefree innocence haunted by a sense of lingering menace.
Living in Los Angeles with its large Cambodian community, the Holtzmans and their American cohorts were able to recruit an exceptionally talented lead singer, Chhom Nimol. And in 2001, Dengue Fever was born.
The group started out by covering songs that had inspired them, but the tracks on Venus on Earth are all original compositions. They veer between Khmer pop, film noir soundtrack, surf rock and folky, teenybopper hit parade fare, right out of the late '60s.
Venus on Earth finds Chhom Nimol singing more songs in English, in duo with Zac Holtzman. But for my money, Dengue Fever really hit their stride when they rock out and let Nimol lay into quirky, melodramatic Khmer melodies.
Venus on Earth is more spare, and maybe a little less wild, than Dengue Fever's breakout album, Escape from Dragon House. This time around there's room for teenage angst, and even introspective balladry.
There is a thread that runs through the '60s pop that inspired those old Khmer rockers, and it continues right on in Dengue Fever's eclectic work. The songs are simple, the hooks strong, the arrangements clever and fun. And that's the stuff that make us fall in love with pop songs, regardless of genre, era or language.
Dengue Fever's new album is called Venus on Earth.
During the Vietnam War, American and British pop music was broadcast in Vietnam on the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Network. Those broadcasts reached neighboring Cambodia, as well. And there, the sounds of Western radio inspired a hybrid of American pop and traditional Cambodian styles.
At that time the king of Cambodian music was Sinn Sisamouth. He and his singing partner, Ros Serey Sothea, had many hits, singing in the traditional style backed by music that sounded like psychedelic surf rock. But when the Pol Pot regime took over in 1975, most of the Western-influenced musicians were killed. The music was banned and recordings destroyed.
Decades later, brothers Zac and Ethan Holzman — a guitar-playing singer-songwriter and a keyboardist, respectively — discovered that vintage Cambodian pop and decided to create a band inspired by the music. They found a Cambodian singer with a beautiful voice who had recently moved to L.A. and formed a group they called Dengue Fever.The band's catchy, often dark instrumentations — along with singer Chhom Nimol's Khmer-language soprano vocals — are a compelling mix.
Dengue Fever's first record was mostly covers of Cambodian pop. Their new CD, Venus on Earth, is an all-original album.