For a band named after a disease that claimed 16,673 deaths in 2006 alone, Dengue Fever is remarkably upbeat. Mixing a pseudo-psychedelic vibe with Khmer lyrics is novel, but can seem a bit contrived on their newest album, “Venus on Earth.” The “psychedelic” sound they are famous for manages to evoke something between the theme of a spy series and a soap opera. In the sixties, that is.
However, despite their originality, Dengue Fever can sometimes seem a bit poppy. Be warned, this is not the album that you put on when you take the girl/guy with bangs in tight jeans and a lumberjack shirt back to your suite. Your suitemates won’t cough and leave the room, pretending to like the music, they’ll probably just bop along. The girl/guy, on the other hand, will probably just get annoyed and start chatting to some other guy/girl about the New York no-wave scene. Or Joy Division.
Some songs, like “Tooth and Nail,” sound too generic. One would hear this same sound whilst perusing a Cambodian shopping mall, or in an Asian advert for obscure moisturizing cream. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but with lyrics like “Couldn’t keep me from trying / And fighting / Doing everything I can,” it does. Especially when the music sounds like some self-righteous mid-90s Disney soundtrack.
However, most of the Khmer lyrics don’t sound as sickly. Songs like “Mr. Orange” are lively, fun and something that you’d play at one of those queer sixties parties in old films. The ones where an elegantly dressed couple is approached by a suspiciously greasy-looking friend in a beige turtleneck, asking if they would like to try LSD.
Yes, it’s that sort of fun and magic that Dengue Fever brings to the bandwagon.
Perhaps the most coherent and instrumentally exciting song on this album is “Clipped Wings.” It soon evolves from the album’s base sound into something quite different, rather like Radiohead in parts, but managing to maintain an admirable consistency among the shifting beats, synths, and the variety of saxophones, electric pianos and guitars in the background. The experience is very visual, pervaded by the general feeling that the band is really making you try to see something.
The music differs considerably from traditional Cambodian pop, and, although labelled under the slightly spurious genre of “world” on iTunes, does merit that title. “Tiger Phone Card” asserts this status more than any other song, even though squeezing “It’s 4 a.m., I check my e-mail” into a high pitched rhythm just doesn’t work that well.
Dengue Fever’s album is patchy at worst — there isn’t much coherence. Despite this, the sound is fun and makes great use of the retro aesthetic that society accepts as “cool” today. After the success of their first album, “Escape from the Dragon House,” named Amazon.com’s No. 1 2006 international release, Dengue Fever seems to have cooled off slightly. Maybe the antibiotics are working.