Over the Weekend: Dengue Fever At Detroit Bar

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Beth Stirnaman/OC Weekly
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The Hype: This isn't the story of a nasty mosquito-borne tropical disease which causes rash and vomiting. Rather, it's the story of how five American males with no aesthetic appeal--but plenty of musical chops--brought a beautiful Cambodian karaoke singer named Chhom Nimol into their fold and made a name for themselves. Los Angeles-based, world-pop group Dengue Fever frequently rehash pop songs from 1960's Cambodia, a country known primarily for bearing an illegal American military incursion (and a subsequent run-in with genocidal super-villain Pol Pot). The band has recorded three full-length albums since 2003. Distributed outside of the U.S. and Canada by Peter Gabriel's Real World Records, the band was the subject of a documentary in 2009 by filmmaker John Pirozzi entitled Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. In the flick, the band is shown packaging well-worn vintage  Khmer pop, and re-gifting it to the Cambodian masses. Last Saturday night, they brought this same music to the masses once again, but instead of the temples of Angkor Wat, they visited the strip-mall encased splendor of Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar.

The Show: Some music journalists have referred to Dengue Fever's pastiche approach to performance as novel. They may be right. But whether Dengue Fever is a novelty act or not, this band's live show is beyond reproach. For an hour and 20 minutes, these six performers tore through a lively set of tunes that straddled the line between a vintage James Bond film score and any number of Tarantino movies anchored within a musical matrix of beach-blanket surf-rock. Leading the charge, clad in a turquoise and black sequined dress and high heels,  dwarfed by the males in the group, singer Chhom Nimol sang in a high register that while at times sounded child-like, threatened to tear the speakers with its forceful resonance. A couple of songs were sung in English, such as "Tiger Phone Card" off 2008's Venus on Earth, but the songs in Khmer were the most pleasing to the ear. There was something irresistible about the way the words rolled off of Nimol's tongue; along with the unique rhythm of Khmer enunciation, it was so foreign to the average American ear. Her deftness with the language augmented this effect. Highlights of the set included "Lost in Laos" off the band's 2003 self titled-debut album, as well as "A-Go-Go" which is available as a digital download. During the latter song, the diminutive Nimol would stretch the mic out to the crowd, encouraging audience members to sing the chorus. Throughout the set, she would sway and dance, occasionally twirling her elegant hands. Gorgeous and sexy, yet not bumptiously so, she always seemed to be holding something in reserve, giving her a slight aura of aloofness. As for the musicianship of the other members, everybody was a star, yet none seemed to shine brighter than the other. Even when saxophonist David Ralicke was wailing on a serpentine lick, it served to augment the intensity of what everybody else was doing. It would be interesting to see what this band could do if backed by a full-on brass orchestra and backup singers.
Dengue Fever was preceded by Los Angeles band Pocahaunted. What can I say about this neo-hippy garbage? Truly awful. Devendra Banhart has ruined a generation of musicians. Sharing vocal duties were two girls from Eagle Rock. Have you ever seen the movie Poltergeist? Remember the scene where the little girl gets sucked into the TV and she's calling out to her mom? The reverb saturated caterwauling of the two lead singers sort of sounded like that. And the convulsive jerking motions of one of the vocalists was so irritating, it was unnerving. It was reminiscent of Edward Sharpe vocalist Jade Castrinos' herky-jerky and overtly pretentious performance style. I couldn't stop thinking about the failed social experiment of the flower generation and the hope that some powerful force will extinguish the embers of that dying fire which continue to smolder to this day. Boo!

The Verdict: With the state of indie-music being what it is today (thanks to bands like Pocahaunted), Dengue Fever's performance made me wonder if novelty and pastiche is where the future of music lies.

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