With showers of glitter, a guitarist perched precariously atop a unicycle, and a Cambodian pop princess, Thursday night at SOhO felt more like a trip to the world music circus than your average early weekend bout of rock ‘n’ roll. But even with Terry Gilliam absent, the absurdity made for a fun night with L.A.-based Cambodian-American surf-psych rockers Dengue Fever.
Local gypsy-freak folk group oso started out the show off the stage and by the bar, singing earnestly to a crowd of mostly-adoring, partially-smirking fans. Seeing as the boys can actually play their instruments, having a unicycling lead singer feels more distracting than clever. Later this gimmicky decision turned tragic when frontman Phil Taylor accidentally knocked over a full beer bottle during some particularly passionate belting. Major party foul aside, the crowd loved oso’s curious gypsy jazz-meets-American folk sound.
And while highly-hyphenated fusion groups often fall short of their long descriptions, Los Angeles’ Dengue Fever defied their sometimes-gimmicky “world music” label, thanks to Cambodian leading lady Chhom Nimol’s high-pitched, honey-smooth voice warbling above a thundering cloud of dirty ‘60s surf rock.
Nimol strutted onto the stage wearing a turquoise prom dress of ruffles and satin, flinging glittery confetti up in the air while seducing the crowd in high-pitched English and Khmer. With all that glitter raining down the stage began to resemble an exploding disco ball, and the crowd danced accordingly, with one drunken concertgoer remarking, “I feel like I’m at a USO show!” Instead of merely partaking in world travel, Dengue Fever time traveled, blending every funky genre to exist this side of 1950 into a whimsical, psychedelic mess of pre-Khmer Rouge pop.
Pop might be a dirty word in some music circles, but this shimmering incarnation is undeniably good. On tracks like “Sober Driver” Nimol and guitarist Zac Holtzman (whose brother Ethan rocks the Farfisa organ) modernize the classic Gainsbourg-Bardot duet dynamic with lyrics like “You call me up because I’m sober and you wanted me to drive / I’m getting tired of being treated as just a free ride.”
And if your friends still don’t believe Cambodian pop can be just as gnarly as any gritty garage rock, tell them Kirk Hammett (of Metallica fame) named Dengue’s “One Thousand Tears of A Tarantula” the second-best song of the decade…. Seriously.