Melting Fiery Hearts With Cool Island Songs. Wait, No…
Dengue Fever’s music is a sonic tapestry; albeit a dizzying ornate one. The Deepest Lake is woven from remote threads, including exotic strings lifted from the Cambodian pop music of yesteryear, the ever-enveloping hum of the Hammond organ and a choir of saxophones of all shapes and sizes. The only aspect of Dengue Fever’s music that betrays the band’s domestic nature is the twangy bedrock from which it springs: the signature reverberation of a single-coil Fender guitar, the universal sound of California surf rock.
Despite the fact that the majority of the band’s lyrics are sung in Khmer by native Cambodian lead vocalist Chhom Nimol, the group are a product of the always sunny and highly polluted city of Los Angeles. Chief composers and resident siblings Zac and Ethan Holtzman draw from two distinct eras in the history of west coast rock ‘n’ roll: the realm of surf rock, as popularized and/or pioneered by The Beach Boys, and the earlier, more lucid psychedelia of The Doors. If it weren’t for the cross-cultural influences and hi-fidelity recordings of non-rock instruments, Dengue might have fit nicely in the sonic and temporal niche between the two groups in another life.
“Rom Say Sok” is Dengue Fever’s first tentative foray into the English language on The Deepest Lake. Hearing “Let down your hair and soak it all up / Tip back your head and finish the cup” sung over a mellotron-fueled boogie beat leads one to believe that “Rom Say Sac” must roughly translate to “Sexy Beach Party.” In fact, every instance in which the two languages intermingle will leave any English speaking listener grasping at hilariously vague context clues provided by the band’s groovy crossover jams.
It’s in “Ghost Voice” that the diction of the Cambodian language is the most captivating, especially during the chorus in which Chhom Nimol’s voice is doubled. The hand percussion comes out to play in the six-minute trip as well, prompting one to wonder if there is a single musical instrument NOT featured somewhere on this record. There seems to be an accordion – but it might be a synthesizer? The title track is another atmospheric fever dream anchored by the beat of a jazzy ride cymbal, and “Vacant Lot” sounds like 90’s trance, but Dengue Fever occasionally opt to travel down the path of least resistance. The chunky little guitar melody of “Cardboard Castles” is rooted in the garage-tinged proto-psychedelic rock of The Electric Prunes and The 13th Floor Elevators.
Ignoring for a moment the half-assed, off key background vocals of “Taxi Dancer,” there’s a fairly balanced substance-to-gimmick ratio on The Deepest Lake, which, given the band’s stylistic ingredients and point of origin, comes as a refreshing surprise.