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Dengue Fever - In the Ley Lines

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Artist: Dengue Fever

Album: In the Ley Lines

Label: Society of Sound

Review date: Nov. 6, 2009

By now, there can’t be too many Dusted readers who haven’t heard the story of the Long Beach band Dengue Fever. It’s 1997 – brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman start collecting cheesy 1960s and 1970s rock tapes from Cambodia and decide to try performing them. When they audition singers from the huge Long Beach Cambodian community, they serendipitously connect with Chhom Nimol, a celebrated vocalist from Phnom Penh. They create a sound that comes from a mix of old Cambodian songs with newly written works in a similar idiom. The rest is (recent) history.

This journalist’s dream – and Dengue Fever’s efforts to live up to it – however, obscures some very talented and creative musicians, a condition very clearly visible in the brand-new download-only album In the Ley Lines. The songs on this album, a combination of alternate takes, live cuts, and remixes, are not new, and anyone who has heard the band in the past will immediately recognize the basic sound: twisting vocals in Khmer and English, echoing electric guitars, Farfisa organ with the tremolo set to “stun.”

Erupting at irregular moments from this familiar background are flashes of genius. “Tiger Phonecard,” a rather tiresome series of long-distance phonecalls sketching out a dysfunctional east-west relationship, nevertheless hosts guitar solos with unusually jagged contours. “The Province,” a slow Khmer ballad, is backed with wandering single-melody guitar lines, snatches of tape-delayed keyboard, wobbly pitched synthesizer licks, and wavering harmonized trumpet sounds worth of John Hassell in the Possible Musics era.

Not all the songs are this much of a mashup. “Hold My Hips” begins with a standard 1970s Cambodian pop treatment, although the saxophone solo a minute into the song is pure Motown soul. The highlight of the album for many listeners will probably be the live, six-and-a-half minute version of “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula.” Built from stripped-down ostinati in the guitar and organ, backed by drums and guitar in close coordination, the song has irresistible drive.

In the Ley Lines is enjoyable in part for what it is and in part for what it could be: cheesy much of the time, clever some of the time, and downright erudite every once in a while. It remains to be seen how Dengue Fever will deal with these occasionally contradictory tendencies. Will they sink back into the comfort of quasi-ironic recreations of Khmer pop music history? Will they seize on the flashes of genius visible from time to time to build something genuinely innovative? They would do well to give their situation serious thought; popular as they are in the World Beat market, they have potential that may require a different audience.

By Richard Miller

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