Sure, Dengue Fever deserves its fair share of credit as the one and only Cambodian pop/alterna-rock crossover around, but it’s also hard to shake the feeling that there’s some gimmickry involved with being multi-culti trailblazers. On one hand, you’ve gotta acknowledge the band’s fated, one-of-a-kind back story, which led brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman to famed Cambodian-born karaoke songstress Chhom Nimol in a Long Beach bar after the siblings decided to seek out a vocalist who could sing in Khmer. And there’s no denying that Dengue Fever puts its money where its mouth is, not only providing indie audiences with a cultural education, but also in light of its charitable endeavors in Cambodia. On the other hand, Dengue Fever has gotten as much mileage as possible out of what can seem like a kitschy schtick, though it’s tough to blame a group for making the most of the situation it’s in. It’s just that you can’t always tell whether Dengue Fever’s about crossing pop’s borders or more like an example of world music tourism.
The thing is, though, Dengue Fever is really just a fun rock band when it comes down to it, albeit one that’s a little more adventurous and eccentric than most in its tastes. Maybe the ethno-pop embellishments are never too far from the surface on Dengue Fever’s fourth album, Cannibal Courtship, but anyone expecting something completely exotic and out there might be surprised by what’s mostly a proficient mix of surf rock, spy soundtracks, funky jazz, psychedelia, and synthy new wave. In particular, you might be hard-pressed to discover anything too out of the ordinary, especially on the LP’s first few numbers: While the opening title track is more or less a mid-tempo tablesetter adorned with some horns and sprightly keyboards, “Cement Shoes” is an East-meets-West girl-boy duet between Nimol and Zac Holtzman that shows off a little humor and a brisk beat to describe a dysfunctional relationship in which they can’t live with or without each other. Even more conventional are the new wave redux of “Thank You Goodbye”, on which Nimol does her best Blondie imitation to disco keyboards and driving vocal melodies, and the party anthem “Family Business”, which radiates with the good vibes that really give Dengue Fever its identity.
When Dengue Fever does live up to its reputation by creating a hybrid sound, the sextet does so with more subtlety and cohesion than you’d imagine, threading the needle between its seemingly incongruous influences by stitching them together. “Mr. Bubbles” really puts the spotlight on Nimol, giving her a chance to show off the range in her voice, as her stylized Khmer singing has plenty of room to breathe before seguing into her breathy English vocals. On “Only a Friend”, the band achieves a feeling of camaraderie through musical idioms, as the song’s Cambodian arrangements come together well with the group’s funkiest grooves and jazziest improvisation on the album. The same can be said for closing number “Durian Dowry”, ending Cannibal Courtship on a high note — literally — as Nimol’s ethereal voice floats over some tastefully cool and mellow lounge rock.
However, that sense of balance is difficult to strike and even harder to maintain consistently, most noticeably when Dengue Fever looks to back up its too-cool-for-school street cred. There are a few too many parts of the album where Dengue Fever tries too hard to live up to hipster expectations, overdoing its Orientalized surf-rock deal as if it’s auditioning for a cameo in some potential Kill Bill sequel, like on “Sister in the Radio” and the instrumental “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius”. And the look-at-me eccentricities of the lyrics tend to stick out for the wrong reasons throughout Cannibal Courtship, even on the most musically compelling tracks, from the absurdities of “Mr. Bubbles” (“And Mr. Bubbles / He foams at the mouth / And his lipstick is smeared”) to the gratuitous STD references on the chorus of “Only a Friend” (“I’m overseas / Flirting with girls / And catching diseases,” Zac Holtzman sings). Most egregious and out-of-place, though, is the tongue-in-cheek apocalypse prophecy “2012 (Bury Our Heads)”, basically a B-movie B-side that doesn’t have much in common with what else is on the album.
What it all boils down to is that it can be hard to tell if Dengue Fever is more successful at being novel or being a novelty act. Cannibal Courtship doesn’t really resolve those questions about Dengue Fever, but answering them isn’t such a big deal when the band sounds like it’s having as good a time as it is here.