It wouldn’t be hard for any marketing intern to sell Dengue Fever. They’re an L.A. garage band with a Cambodian lead singer – this shtick basically writes itself. Their novelty is painfully clear. Nevertheless, after more than ten years in the business, one could not fault the idiosyncratic group for struggling to stay a part of the conversation. Their niche, an initial selling point, could easily have become a stale routine, or a prism through which all of their music is observed. Luckily, their latest release, The Deepest Lake, experiments with their sound just enough to breathe life into their distinct formula.
After listening to The Deepest Lake, their first album in four years, a few things become clear. Chhom Nimol, the impressively feisty lead singer, still has one of the most beguiling voices in psychedelic music. Her ‘ghost voice’, or what might otherwise be described as a Cambodian yodel, is many things at once – assertive but demure, strange yet familiar. Meanwhile, her backing band is still capable of delivering their inimitable brand of psychedelic rock fused with ‘60s Oriental pop. Zak Holtzman’s spindly guitar riffs blend seamlessly into the confidently outlandish sound created by David Ralicke’s jazzy saxophone and Paul Dreux Smith’s heavy percussion. Tracks like ‘Tokay’ and the six-minute psychedelic jam ‘Cardboard Castles’ see the band firing on all cylinders, with each member receiving their own solo before synching up to perfection.
This record has also provided Dengue Fever with the opportunity to broaden their sound, showcasing a variety of new influences. While the heavy beat on ‘Taxi Driver’ resembles something from hip-hop, the horns on ‘Ghost Voice’ are ripped straight out of Ethiopian Jazz. It is this globetrotting approach to music that allows the band to finally earn their status as World Music, a label perhaps lazily foisted upon them early in their career.
Nevertheless, The Deepest Lake does begin to lose steam as it reaches the second-half. With the exception of ‘Rom Say Sok’ – a stomping tune that sounds like the theme for a Cambodian variety show in the pre-Khmer era – nothing reaches the dizzying heights of their breakout song, ‘One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula’. The band has expanded their musical palette, but there is still an inescapable formula that doesn’t sustain itself for an entire hour.
Alas, there are still victories to be had. If nothing else, The Deepest Lake proves that the band is more than just a novelty conversation piece for hipsters. Only Dengue Fever sound like Dengue Fever – for that reason alone, each new album of theirs should be considered a blessing.
By Oliver Mangham