CD Review of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong by Dengue Fever
Dengue Fever: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong
Recommended if you like
The Ventures, Blondie,
Charles Mingus
Label
M80
Dengue Fever:
Sleepwalking Through
the Mekong

Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz

W
ho would have thought that a vocalist singing in Cambodian with a Jewish guitarist that looks like a rabbi could be such a successful formula for creating one of modern music’s most original and groovy sounds? Guitarist Zac Holtzman thought it, and you’ve got to give him props for such a unique idea.

The band calls their sound a "Cambodian pop rock psychedelic dance party," and it’s an apt description. The fact that vocalist Chhom Nimol often sings in Cambodian may not work for everyone, but she’s got the voice and charismatic presence to pull it off, along with the strong and groovy musicianship from the band. The Southern California unit’s sound is retro, but it’s done with such flair as to sound fresh and modern.

This documentary follows Dengue Fever around Cambodia as they visit Nimol’s homeland and the roots of the band’s music. It’s intriguing to see Nimol and company welcomed like heroes because, in a certain cultural sense, they are. Many aspects of Cambodian culture came under fire during the tyrannical Pol Pot regime of the 1970s (much like the Chinese repression of Tibetan culture still going on today). So in a very real sense, Dengue Fever are helping to revitalize a sound that might otherwise have faded away.

The film features footage of the band checking out the sights and talking about the cultural heritage that they’ve embraced, with a focus on Nimol’s return to her homeland. But there’s plenty of performance footage as well, as the band plays on a Cambodian TV show and around at different clubs. There’s a strong sense of cultural pride in the music as the band invites fans out of the crowd to come up and sing with Nimol.

The accompanying soundtrack mixes groovy dance tunes with some more atmospheric tracks appropriate for a soundtrack, so there’s a fair range of material here, including some tracks from other Cambodian artists that influenced the band’s sound. But Dengue Fever’s contributions are the highlight.

The trippy title track instantly transports the listener across the planet and back in time to the 1960s, when this unique pop/rock sound originated in Cambodia. Nimol’s versatile voice is mesmerizing here. "March of the Balloon Animals" continues in a similar vein, with an instrumental track that builds as sort of introduction to conjure the vibe for the Cambodian dance party to follow.

Tunes like "Tip My Canoe," "Ethanopium" and "Hold My Hips" get that party going, mixing the ‘60s pop sound with some groovy ‘70s funk. Keyboardist Ethan Holtzman rings up some great analog synth sounds that expand the band’s sound in a psychedelic direction, while sax man David Ralicke adds yet another element with his modal lines that bring out a modern, acid jazz flavor. Both make great compliments to the tight, funky trio formed by guitarist Zac Holtman, bassist Senon Williams and drummer Paul Smith.

"Hummingbird" sounds like more of a traditional ballad, but Nimol’s beautiful voice dazzles on it. "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula" has a trance-dance electronic sound, as well as bit of a secret agent vibe that makes it sound like it could have been lifted from a James Bond soundtrack, while "Seeing Hands" has a hypnotic flavor that makes for a chill interlude.

Dengue Fever have been winning fans across the country with their fun and unique sound and this documentary shows why. It also demonstrates how popular music can have a vital cultural and spiritual impact that goes beyond mere entertainment.

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