IT WAS OVER a plate of dried snake in a market in northwest Cambodia that guitarist Zac Holtzman told MOJO that romantic impressions of his group as all jasmine, incense and slow-boat rides up the Mekong were now rather wide of the mark. “Those old songs were a launching pad, but I think we’ve become a band that does anything it feels like doing. We had our beginning as ‘that Cambodian-rock band’, now we can write what we’re feeling.”
There comes a point in most bands’ lives when the carrot they thought was dangling in front of them is whipped away and (if they are lucky) doing it for themselves becomes the only option. Five albums after they started life in Los Angeles playing covers from “the golden age of Cambodian rock” – a necessity because their Khmer vocalist, Chhom Nimol, spoke little English – Dengue Fever are as free of the ghosts of pre-Pol Pot pop as they are ever likely to be.
Not that they have cast off all influences from South-east Asia – opener Tokay tells the story of a weeping gecko; the hook-laden Rom Say Sok takes its cue from possibly Cambodia’s most famous folk tale, the story of a woman whose hair soaked up a sea, turning a giant crocodile into a mountain – but Holtzman and Chhom’s voices entwine in tribute not to Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, the king and queen of the Phnom Penh scene, but Sunset Strip punk royalty Exene Cervenka and John Doe.
“Those old songs were a launching pad... We had our beginning as ‘that Cambodian-rock band’, now we can write what we’re feeling.”
There are problems specific to a band that has to write songs in English then try to translate them into functional Cambodian before recording, but the album’s middle section – the ruminative Deepest Lake On The Planet, eerie Cardboard Castles and downright spooky Vacant Lot – take left-field harmonies, summer-of-’67 vibes and the feeling of being coaxed out of slumber at sunrise by a pinpeat orchestra rehearsing next door to build a simulacrum of that lost golden age, when Asia’s musicians first became intoxicated with the pop sounds of the West.
However, on Golden Flute they take that mood too far, as if wondering what happens when you throw your heart and soul into a song in which nothing appears to happen.
Such indulgence can be forgiven, though, not least for the excitement generated by one-man horn section David Ralicke on No Sudden Moves, Rom Say Sok and Still Waters Run Deep, where he lets his jazz head run amok, presiding over his own big band and letting jousting tenor, alto and trombone push the songs toward higher ground. That Cambodian rock band with a repertoire of the most obscure covers have grown up – and no snakes were harmed in the making of this album.
Watch the video for Rom Say Sok and listen to The Deepest Lake in full below.
For more visit www.denguefevermusic.com.