8Tracks Rewind: Get to Know Dengue Fever

I think about you so so so so much I forget to eat

Chhom Nimol and Senon Williams. 10-30-10.

“California psychedelic surf rock with lyrics sung in Khmer?  Sure!  Why not?”  I downloaded Dengue Fever’s third full-length album, Venus on Earth, and by the end of the first spin, I was repeating aloud, “Where has this been all my life?”

Once upon a time eMusic was the online digital music store unlike the others.  Because it didn’t have deals with the major labels, it pushed indie and fringe artists, some on the fringe because that’s where their music was, some because they hadn’t yet been discovered by the masses who would someday embrace them.  For a monthly subscription, music lovers received download credits for an impressive range of excellent music.

Because so much of the music I love is right in that wheelhouse, eMusic was one of my favorite things ever.  I had long lists of artists I wanted to check out each month and my “save for later” queue was maxed at 100 albums.  The number of credits I received was generous; my plan meant that mp3s were about $.49 each, or half the price for the same tracks on iTunes.  The low price meant that many of eMusic’s faithful were willing to be adventurous.  We’d look at the “most downloaded” lists, the staff picks, and the year-end highest-rated albums by eMusic subscribers lists, and say, “Sure!  Why not?”

This is how I first heard about Dengue Fever, on one of these “subscribers’ favorites” lists.  Venus on Earth was my third-favorite album of 2008 (it was a very competitive year!)* and Dengue Fever has remained a favorite.

I’m too geared to fall asleep

Because it was Halloween eve.

As gimmicky as the premise may sound, the biggest reason for Dengue Fever’s rabid fanbase is its excellent musicianship.  This band rocks, and seeing them live, you kind of wish you could slow everything down so you don’t miss anything.  Lead guitarist (and sometime lead singer) Zac Holtzman is strangely charismatic even in a band laden with charisma.  His brother Ethan Holtzman on keys, saxophonist David Ralicke, drummer Paul Dreux Smith, and bassist Senon Williams are all more than the backing band.  One of the things I love about this group is that it’s not afraid of lots of soloing, and everyone gets his chance.  Repeatedly.

Senon Williams took this photo of Nimol and a lumpy me. I’m all crooked because I fell in love that night.

The biggest reason to fall utterly in love with Dengue Fever, however, is lead singer Chhom Nimol.  If you’ve seen or heard anything like her in American rock music, I need to know where you hang out on Friday nights, because I need me some of that.

The band’s sound has grown more inclusive over the years, adding other styles to the Cambodian-Californian pop-rock origins.  Senon Williams says on the Dengue Fever website, “Before it was partly Cambodian and partly indie rock.  Now it’s one hundred percent both.”

I saw them in concert on Halloween eve in 2010, and they were amazing.  It was a street fair, and through their set the street was packed with the celebrants you would expect, but right after the show, a small mob of middle-aged Cambodian women waited for their turn to chat in (I’m assuming) Khmer with Nimol.  She seemed thrilled to speak with them and I wondered if this happens at every Dengue Fever show.

Just go see them.

The first thing that I do is throw my arms around you

Start with “Tiger Phone Card,” probably the band’s most accessible track.  It’s sung in English, and it’s about a long distance relationship (Phnom Penh and New York City).  It’s got that psycho-surf sound in all the instruments, but Nimol’s vocals slide around on that exotic Cambodian scale.  I’m embedding the album version, but if you kind of dig this, check out the many live recordings of this song on YouTube.

And never let go

Then you’ll want to hear “Sni Bong,” from the band’s self-titled debut album.  It’s probably Dengue Fever’s most popular song sung in Khmer.

Open up to me and tell me that you love me

web, twttr, ig, ytbe, fb, bndcmp, sptfy, appl, amzn

A couple of months ago, the South Coast Repertory staged an original play by Lauren YeeCambodian Rock Band inspired by and featuring the music of Dengue Fever.  This promo video is pretty great.  Did any of our readers see this?  Was it as awesome as it sounds?

* The best was the Gaslight Anthem’s The ‘59 Sound, and the second best was Crooked Still’s Still Crooked.

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Author: Mitchell K. Dwyer

@scrivener likes movies.