Cambodian rock via LA
TingMong by Dengue Fever is an excellent transcontinental album from a seasoned band
John Clewley can be contacted at email@example.com. ■ JOHN CLEWLEY
Bangkok Post Public Company Limited
Los Angeles-based band Dengue Fever has released a new studio album, Ting Mong (Tuk Tuk Records, USA), their first for eight years. The release marks the Cambodian-US band’s 20th anniversary since their acclaimed self-titled debut in 2003. Dengue Fever began after brothers Ethan (keyboards) and Zac Holtzman (guitars and vocals) independently discovered the joys of Cambodian pop and rock from the 1960s and 70s, Ethan while travelling in Cambodia and Zac from working in an indie record store. They formed Dengue to perform covers of songs by Cambodian pop stars like Sinn Sisamouth, Pen Ran and Ros Serey Sothea. In Little Phnom Penh in Long Beach, California, they found former refugee and Khmer singer Chhom Nimol, added saxes and electric bass, and the six-member outfit was born. Although Dengue Fever began their recording career by covering Cambodian pop classics, right from the first album they began to write their own songs as they released a series of well received albums: Escape From Dragon House (2005), Venus On Earth (2008), Cannibal Court ship (2011), In The Ley Lines (2013), The Deepest Lake (2015) and several EPs. The band has also released a soundtrack for the documentary film Sleepwalking Through The Mekong and several of their songs have been used as theme tunes for TV series. In 2018, the band contributed songs to Cambo dian Rock Band, a play about a Cambodian musician persecuted by the Khmer Rouge. For the new album the band set up their own label, Tuk Tuk Records. The band began recording Ting Mong in 2018. The recording was paused until 2019, when the band members reconvened in a cabin in the California desert. They rigged up a studio and started again, this time incorporating some of the sounds they recorded there and parts from previously recorded songs. The result is a much more contemplative sound than the harder driving, more frenetic tracks found on their early albums. The cover photo shows a Ting Mong, which in traditional Khmer culture is a scarecrow-like figure often placed at the entrance to the village or at the gates of a home to ward off evil spirits and malevolent ghosts. Touch Me Not opens the album with singer Chhom Nimol in terrific form (she also wrote the lyrics), soaring over a trance-like desert groove. This track segues into Silver Fish, a nocturnal insect that can eat paper, a symbolic action that represents how we erase the past without learning from our mistakes. But the album’s keynote track is the anthemic Prahok In My Suitcase, a buzzing wall of sound that is somewhat ominous. Prahok is a spicy fish paste that is a key element in Cambodian cuisine. So, does the song mean that you need to take your culture with you when you move to another place, another country and culture? (Nimol spent many years in a refugee camp before emigrating to the USA.) Bass player Senon Williams has said the “key focus was to let Chhom Nimol’s captivating voice take flight”, which it does, especially on standouts like Touch Me Not and the sublime Silver Fish. Thai music fans will be intrigued to note that the latter track includes guitar by Zac Holtzman that mimics phin lines and riffs from molam music. Indeed, the band’s interest in music from all parts of the globe (an interest fanned by touring with African artists and bands like Angelique Kidjo and Tinariwen) is evident with snatches of jazz, Ethiopian keyboards and even exotica and lounge music, as on the instrumental Room 720. The music is much more measured and less frenetic than their early releases, but their trademark psych guitar and moody keyboard groove still powers their sound. There’s a more melancholic feel, too, which dovetails beautifully with Nimol’s sweet, nasally voice, and perhaps reflects the times we are living in. Excellent album, highly recommended. I will be DJing at the opening of the Jim Thompson Farm Tour 2023, with a set of Vietnam-era vinyl for the “America In Isan” exhibition on Dec 9. If you visit during the tour, you can see an exhibition I curated on molam, “Lam Loke – The World Of Molam” in the Isan Village, from Dec 9 to Jan 2. Check out the Jim Thompson Farm Facebook page for more information.