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Dengue Fever - Escape from Dragon House Print E-mail
Monday, 01 May 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    8.5
release year:    2005
label:    M80
reviewed by:    Charles Andrews

ImageRegress with me here – what were your favorite fantasies as a kid, the innocent ones that delivered glee and wonder as you daydreamed the possibilities, almost too much fun to imagine? (And all the better for the little bit of naughtiness that managed to creep in. Hey! – it’s just pretend!) It’s probably been years or maybe decades since you gave them another thought. The realities of creeping puberty and your expanding knowledge of the laws of science made you painfully aware at some point that there was zero chance of ever flying (you know, like Superman), or having other superpowers (was seeing through clothing the first or second thing you’d do with x-ray vision?), or stopping time, or becoming invisible, or time traveling into the future or past.

I heard on radio recently, probably NPR’s great “This American Life” (dazzling writing and production creativity), about some guy who goes around the room at parties, just for fun (or maybe to meet girls), and poses the question: “Flying … or invisibility?” He reports a pretty even split, but says nearly everyone seems delighted to revisit the fantasy (no one says, “Gee, never thought of that”), and says he gets the darnedest answers, and always, always, lots of qualifying questions: Will my clothes become invisible when I do, or do I have to be naked? Can I fly at any speed, or would the hair blow off my head, or burn up if I re-entered the atmosphere too fast? Wouldn’t people hear me walk or breathe when I’m invisible? What would it look like if I drank something? Clearly, when reminded of those innocent flights of the imagination, people don’t take much prodding to become kids again. My 12-year-old daughter says stopping time is still her favorite, and would probably be voted #1 among her peers.

Me? Time travel. Hands down. Still. Always. Hopefully, with a little more class and focus than Bill and Ted, but also aiming for an excellent adventure. Of course, you have to consider carrying a suitcase full of gold (the currency of time travel) back to the IPO of Google, or Starbucks or eBay, or to Holland to offer poor Van Gogh a few bucks for all those paintings he couldn’t sell, or to Vegas to bet on Cassius Clay in his first fight with Sonny Liston (7 to 1), or better yet Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson (42 to 1), or ... what kind of odds do you think I could get on David over Goliath?
But my time travel fantasies always turn to music. I was reminded of it twice recently, first when going through some jazz albums and coming across The Trumpet Kings Meet Joe Turner, the Kings being Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Clark Terry. Imagine, I mused, staring at them all in a row on the cover, hanging out at that session, getting to hear those four giants of the jazz trumpet all in one room together. Forget the recording, imagine the jams! Then the next day a friend suddenly blurted out, “Exactly 36 years ago today, I would’ve been getting all excited about walking into the Forum that night to hear Jimi Hendrix play – his last LA show … except I was only eight,” he added, with pained regret over the missed opportunity. (A couple of months after that I did see him, in Albuquerque. In a 3,000-seat hall. I was older than eight, I intentionally went straight, it was amazing and I remember it still. And then he was gone.)

Put me in a room with other music freaks and we could go on for hours, endlessly naming concerts or sessions we’d show up at courtesy of our time machines. Jimi would’ve been a prime target for me – Woodstock, Monterrey; I would’ve loved being at his first few club gigs after he hit London, watching jaws drop and looking for Clapton and Townshend and other reigning guitar gods sneaking in to witness the coronation of the new king, and slinking out to consider some other line of work. But if I could use the machine only once? Drop me on Central Avenue in LA sometime around 1928, and come back for me in about 25 years. I was sooo disappointed when the movie version of Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins saga “Devil in a Blue Dress” hit the screen and spent practically no time at all taking us inside those hallowed, jumpin’ halls that rivaled or surpassed New York’s 52nd Street scene.

One time and place I’d never have thought to aim my machine would be Phnom Penh, late ‘60s-early ‘70s. Who knew of any kind of music scene in Cambodia, back then or today? I now know that would’ve been a serious oversight (though oversights are not a problem when you have a time machine), ever since I caught Dengue Fever.

Though dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, and can be fatal, I caught the capitalized, musical version by word of pen. Before I heard a note either live or recorded, it seeped into my bloodstream and brain through reports I read in the press, and for almost a year I had this instinctive feeling (that rarely fails me) that this was a band I had to hear, though interestingly enough every attempt I made to catch them or come across a recording failed me. Just a description of the band was enough to get my juices flowing, the start of a low-grade fever: a five-man American band playing ‘60s-style Cambodian psychedelic garage rock, fronted by a former beauty queen singing in her native Khmer. Who knew there ever was Cambodian psychedelic rock? What does Khmer sound like? How could this not be good?

Well, it’s good all right, live and on this album. Not just good for a while, or good for a novelty. I’ve been spinning Escape from Dragon House lots, and lots, for more than a month, and it only gets better.

Here it is, the nutshell of my sketchy knowledge about these exotic, wonderful sounds and their context. Apparently there was a thriving music scene in Cambodia in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, most of it in the capital and cultural center Phnom Penh. Local rockers became adept at copying Western chart songs they heard, often through radio broadcasts of U.S. troops fighting next door in Viet Nam. They threw in bits of Bollywood, Ethiopia and their own native influences, almost always singing in Khmer, so you wound up with something unique and geographically specific, and by several reports, pretty accomplished. It wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t just a podunk outpost knock-off. It may have often been cheesy, but so were the songs they were interpreting. There was no shortage of good cheese on the charts in those heady days, sitting alongside Cream, the Animals and the Airplane, and these cats knew their limits of ersatz excellence and knew better than to try to be the Cambodian Clapton.

So along come the Holtzman brothers, Zac and Ethan (no relation, despite Zac’s missing “k,” to Elektra Records founder Jac Holtzman), three decades later, who separately become enamored with this obscure genre (as do, separately, they say, the other prospective band members – seems like an alien mind-plant a la “Close Encounters”). They form a combo in L.A. and look for a Cambodian vocalist, and the story, true or not, who cares, is that a bunch of singers showed up for the audition in Long Beach (second-largest Cambodian population after Phnom Penh), but when Ch’hom Nimol walked into the room, they all headed for the door.

Famous in her native land and adopted Long Beach as singer, dancer, beauty queen, she is the focus of Dengue Fever’s live performances, not for her physical beauty as much as for the quiet charisma she so elegantly melds with her gorgeous singing voice. I’m not familiar enough with Eastern music to know the terms, but if you’ve ever heard Asian singers doing their thing, you know it’s on a different playing field than Western pop. I think pentatonic scales have something to do with it, which is also common to Ethiopian music, which somehow became a big influence on Cambodian pop (there’s a story I’ve got to hear). Nimol sings with a note-jump that reminds me vaguely of the country music vocal “catch,” or sort of a one-catch minor yodel, that I’ve heard from other Asian vocalists, but the experience always seemed inherently hard to take for my Western ears. But Ch’hom’s voice is a thing of beauty, bell-like, precisely controlled, crystal clear, all offered with discernible ease and grace. It’s mesmerizing, seems completely authentic, and floats along on its own plane while simultaneously perfectly suited and mixed right in to the rockin’ material. And this may sound trivial, but her intermittent hand gestures, derived from native dance figures, even when limited to one hand at a time by her use of a hand-held mike, are so exotic to Western eyes, something you never see in a rock and roll show, as demurely sexy yet completely seductive as the more blatant swaying hips of really good hula dancers, that I’d follow that wrist anywhere. Yeah, you should catch a live show.

But don’t expect anything different or better than what you hear on Escape from Dragon House. It’s one of those recordings that gave me hope that, live, the band would kill. Not so. But I’ll get to that later.

You read about groups that are interesting because they stir together a grab-bag of disparate elements into a tasty, fresh-sounding stew, and anything you read about Dengue Fever is going to sound like that same old brand new thing. In a review of a mysterious compilation I’ve just got to get my ears around, Cambodian Rocks, Kevin Nutt lists the elements of this music as “bits of surf, wild R&B, girl-group vocals, garage, post-garage psychedelia, Cuban bongos and even some pre-punk snarling.” I‘d be surprised to ever hear Ch’hom or even her bandmates snarl, but most of the rest of that mélange is present on Escape from Dragon House, and more. I hear the mariachi horn stylings of Love’s Forever Changes, ‘50s sax honking, Leslie Gore, Ravi Shankar’s band on acid, ? and the Mysterians’ cheesy organ, Doors-like bass lines, Mancini TV and Morricone spaghetti Western soundtracks, Del Shannon, B-52s, dripping Sgt. Pepper brass, Tommy James and lots of Indian Bollywood influence. Got your interest yet?

But remember this. They didn’t throw this stuff together out of some bad-anchovy-pizza-and-too-many-tequila-shots swoon, just to see how clever and crazy they could get, though that would be remarkable anyway. It’s got its foundation in an existing, culturally-generated genre they know and revere, which they’ve dragged into the new millennium with their own stamp: modern, culturally and musically mixed, but authentic to the spirit, by the book but taken several steps higher.

And the other big, important thing: they’ve done it, on Dragon House, with their own songs, some absolutely killer tunes, and doesn’t outstanding music always come down to that? Their first, eponymous album was nearly all covers of Cambodian classics of the garage era, which unfortunately I’ve not heard yet, but I have tripped through the 29-second samplings available online, and even through poor sound quality you can tell their musicianship has also come a long way with this release. Interestingly, the one non-original they do on Dragon House (named after the Long Beach club where the guys found Ch’hom performing) is the groovy “Tip My Canoe,” written (and I presume performed) by the former pillars of Cambodian pop, Ros Serey Sothea and Sin Sisamouth, who both lost their lives, like so many musicians and literally millions of other Cambodians, at the hands of the brutal Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge; Pot snuffed out the whole music scene when he came to power in 1975, as abruptly and finally as a pistol shot to the head. It’s the number that hands some lead vocals in Khmer over to Zac, I’m guessing to replicate the original duet version, and it sounds natural and cool.

Escape from Dragon House wastes no time, nine swirling organ seconds in (“We Were Gonna”), to let you know the flavor of the music, and the language. Outside Long Beach and Phnom Penh, there aren’t that many of us who understand Khmer, but you know what? Not only doesn’t that matter, I’m going to declare it a good thing, not because it makes you focus on the music, but just the opposite: because of the way Dengue Fever and especially Ch’hom Nimol use the Khmer words, they become not a distraction but another instrument, vital to enjoying the whole, and I’ll be danged if a couple of strange things don’t happen. You try to sing along, because the melodies are so seductive. You find yourself learning to pronounce just a word or two, or a chorus, so you can join in, as with any song you love. Khmer words start to sound like English here and there, but usually you’re just relating them to a similar-sounding English word or phrase. Or you discover that the group does occasionally throw a little English in, sometimes just one line or phrase, in an entire song. Sometimes the American boys sing in Khmer, occasionally Ch’hom will sing some in English, and sometimes it’s mixed. And then there’s the irresistible closing ballad, the spare and delicate “Hummingbird,” all in English, which probably no one but Nimol could ever sell so endearingly. At the opposite end, the six-and-a-half-minute, song-title-of-the-year “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula,” takes you into the heart of a mostly-instrumental psychedelic typhoon, where you see every cliché fly by but never think of chuckling because it’s not only self-aware, it’s done damn well. Nimol’s highly-reverbed vocal chanting is another unexpected twist on the language issue.

Going to Dengue Fever’s MySpace page is a lot more enlightening than their official website or their label’s, and you can see their smart new video for “Sni Bong,” definitely one of my new favorite songs in the universe, and a very cool vid. You’ll read about their recent trip to Cambodia, which was filmed and made them instant local TV stars, and how actor/director Matt Dillon asked them to supply a Cambodian version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” for his Cambodian-based 2002 thriller “City of Ghosts.” But above all, don’t you fear the Khmer. Surrender to Escape from Dragon House is painless, because the best music always speaks universally.

The mix here is close to ideal, though perhaps just a tad short of the crispness and separation of instruments that would give it more punch. (On the other hand, you’re talking about a reflected ‘60s genre that often required a little muddiness for the proper effect.) You’ve got a lot of great musical ideas jumping in and out of each song, and the choices made are nearly always exactly the right ones, but … Remember my remark about being slightly disappointed that live, the band didn’t explode? The album doesn’t,

I think the musicians have the chops to add those last little pieces, but by choice they don’t, and that’s the difference between an album or performance that delights you, and one that floors you. These songs are so well-crafted, so wonderfully arranged, I hesitate to make this sound like a full-blown criticism, but it’s always the last little touches that make the difference between craft and art, art and masterpiece. If they weren’t so close, you probably wouldn’t even notice.

It’s hard to describe in print. If you were sitting here with me, listening, I could point to example after example where a riff was a little muted, an idea not pushed to the limit, an axe played hard but not ripped. I don’t think it’s in the mix, and I don’t think the musicians are lacking. I think it’s a choice they’ve made, to have all the parts serve their vision of the whole, but I hear a whole lot more, an album so full of great songs and performances just a little goosing would put it in the hall of fame. Close, a cigar, but it’s not Cuban.

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