Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Getting The Fever

I have finally seen Dengue Fever and they did not disappoint. Before talking about the band themselves, let me briefly mention the support act. They were a local act called The Hired Hands. I had not seen them before, but they were pretty entertaining. They had a slightly folky edge to them, or else a hint of early Belle & Sebastian (but not in a derivative way). In fact, they were like Los Campesinos would be if they did not suck. I hope to see them again in the future.

And so to Dengue Fever themselves. In general terms you probably get the idea with these fellows now. They were formed originally by two brothers who became fascinated by the Khmer Pop sounds of pre-1975 Cambodia. These fellows managed to recruit other musicians and, crucially, a Cambodian singer already well known on the Cambodian karaoke circuit. With her at the helm they started to play live and release records, originally doing mainly covers but increasingly moving towards doing their own tunes. In broad terms, the music has a surfy/psychey quality, while the vocals are often astronomically high yet boasting the semi-guttural cadences of the Khmer language.

Live, a couple of things strike about Dengue Fever. First off, they are an incredibly tight outfit. I had the idea that they would come across like the brothers and a load of pretty boy session players, but no. These seem to be a bunch of fellows who really love playing together and are really good at it. Excellent. There was a wonderful fluidity to how they moved around on stage. The other funny thing about them is that the fellow with the funny beard (the one of the brothers who sings the male parts on record) is incredibly tall. This makes for some bizarre stage interaction between him and the singer, who (like many Cambodians) is a bit short. The third thing that strikes about the band is that the singer is amazing – she is a total star, in fact, and I felt privileged to be seeing someone as incredible in a venue as small as the Sugar Club.

They played some songs from their recent Venus on Earth album, as well as others I did not recognise, presumably from their earlier works. I got the impression that most people present were not too familiar with their stuff on record (apart from the real fans), so you did get things like the band saying "The next song is called 'Shave Your Beard'" and getting no more reaction than usual. But people were present to have fun and enjoy good music, so no one was letting lack of familiarity stop them.

There is something wonderful about a band who really know how to play fronted by a total star and playing infectiously catchy tunes that make it impossible for you to sit still. I recommend catching Dengue Fever if they ever do a concert near you; you would be a fool to miss them.

They also brought CDs to sell, circumventing the Dengue Fever boycott operated by Dublin shops. So I now have all their albums. The other ones (Escape from the Dragon House and an untitled one) feature less songs in English and more covers than Venus on Earth. I would be hard pressed to say whether the band on record are showing an upward or downward trajectory. I mean, obviously there is a whole selling out to whitey aspect to recording songs in English (on the earlier albums, they have original songs but with vocals translated into Khmer), but I am not sure that I would like the sublime 'Tiger Phone Card' if I could not understand what they were singing.

One odd feature of the untitled album is its featuring a cover of Ethiopian jazzer Mulatu Astatqé's 'Yègellé Tezeta' (from vol.4 in the Éthiopiques series). They change the title to 'Ethanopium'. The sleevenotes do not advance a tendentious argument about the Khmer origins of Ethio-jazz.

You find some deadly pictures if you do a Google image search for "Dengue Fever"

random blog post by someone else on Dengue Fever and the Khmer Pop scene of the past

image source

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