First Impressions: Cannibal Courtship by Dengue Fever

If you’ve always wondered what surf/psychedelic rock and Cambodian pop would sound like if combined, you need wonder no more: just listen to Dengue Fever. The six-piece from from L.A. just released its fourth album (and first in three years), and you’re unlikely to find a more entertaining or unique set of tunes.  

Their sound defies description with vocalist Chhom Nimol singing in her native Khmer (these songs tend to be sad reminiscences of life in Cambodia) or English (which tend to be quirky and funny), backed by surf guitar, Farfisa organ, sax, and whatever percussion is at hand. The title (and lead) track starts with a casual guitar figure and a quiet vocal. You can almost see Nimol swaying on a stage in a humid club in Phnom Penh. Then it gains shape and momentum as she sings “I’m famished for a man” and the background singers chime in. By the chorus (“Be my sacrificial lamb”), the song is crashing away.  

“Uku” is a highlight, the most Eastern-feeling song, entirely in Khmer, Nimol’s voice rising and bending over a great bass figure and droning guitar. “Sister in the Radio” is another Khmer song, this one slow and aching with the feel of a great French torch song. “Mr. Bubbles” captures the Farfisa organ vibe well – makes you think you’re at a roller rink. And “Family Business” is great up-tempo rocker driven by a strong bass line and busy guitar riff.  

This is not music for everyone’s tastes, particularly if you’ve only listened to Western music and aren’t prepared for the range of notes covered in a lot of Asian music. It can sound “out of key” but I assure you, it’s not: it’s just different, and that’s a good thing.

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