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Los Angeles-based six-piece Dengue Fever devote themselves to Cambodian pop of the 60s and 70s, which combines traditional singing with a playful riot of Western flavors, most prominently bluesy garage rock, organ-soaked psychedelia, and reverb-crazed surf music. It was nearly driven to extinction by the genocides of the Khmer Rouge, but it's hardly been forgotten by Cambodians, for many of whom it represents a sunnier, more innocent time in the country's history.
Dengue Fever's sole Cambodian member, front woman Chhom Nimol, was born into a musical family in Battambang and came to the U.S. in 2001, the same year the band got started; she was finally granted citizenship in late 2014. For several albums now Dengue Fever have focused on original material, and on Tue 1/27 they'll release The Deepest Lake, their sixth full-length (and the first on their own label, Tuk Tuk).
I've had a soft spot for these folks ever since my old band Brilliant Pebbles opened for them in 2008 at the Empty Bottle. They were fun, eager, and unpretentious, and we bonded over the fact that both our bands had immigrant members who sometimes struggled to make themselves clear in English.
Today's 12 O'Clock Track is the lead single from The Deepest Lake, "No Sudden Moves." I like the frisky, stair-stepping horn-and-guitar licks that first appear in the intro, especially the way they mesh with the funky bass vamp. I'm a sucker for surfy exotica too.
Of course, not much in Dengue Fever's music can compete with Nimol's sinuous, sensual, knife-edged voice—her beautiful high notes reliably give me chills. And on this song, she does something I've never heard from her before: I wouldn't go so far as to call it "rapping," but it's close. As a bonus, it allows those of us who don't speak Khmer to better make out its occasional bitten-off syllables and unfamiliar diphthongs.
The video for "No Sudden Moves" looks like part prison melodrama, part Mexican soap opera, and part hallucination scene from a student film. So what's going on? Guitarist and cosongwriter Zac Holtzman, who helps with the band's lyrics, explained the story behind the song in the LA Weekly.
"That one is about a guy who lived in a meth house that was across the street from our studio," he says. "A guy was going to prison for a while and he dropped his dog off so they'd take care of it." Things escalated quickly from there, alas, and the dog ended up attacking three tenants after one of them accidentally smacked it in the face with a plastic bag: "This woman came running out screaming with a big slab of meat hanging off of her arm and her bone sticking out."
The people in the house strangled the dog, or thought they did—after they came home from the hospital and went to sleep, intending to bury the animal in the morning, the dog regained consciousness and attacked them again. This time, though, the tenants stabbed it to death. "I was kinda rooting for the dog," says Holtzman. "We told this story from the guy in prison's perspective.”
All right then! That clears everything up. Enjoy!