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September 27, 2023 • 8:00 am PDT
They are back. Not because the 20th anniversary of a debut album usually demands it. Dengue Fever are back because they wanted to. Eight years after the release of The Deepest Lake, as new generations of listeners are catching up to the same omnivorous music taste the band has practiced since its inception, a new album, Ting Mong (out September 15) captures yet another enthralling dimension of their genre-defying journey. Where most returns favor clamor and bombast, Ting Mong seeks the sonic balm these times so desperately need.
Before the world went into full apocalypse mode, Dengue Fever were already looking for peace and quiet. Once the touring cycle of 2015’s The Deepest Lake was over, they were a band whose members needed time to focus on different ventures, whether those might be family or visual arts, session work or…metal detecting.
Never really on hiatus, band members were soon drawn back to each other. Ask them, and they’ll tell you that they are a band because they are family first.
So they reconvened in 2019, rented a small cabin in the California desert near Joshua Tree, and converted it into a recording studio. They spent the day jamming and slept under the stars at night. Then, the pandemic hit, sending everyone into retreat. It was 2021 when Dengue Fever could meet in person again, and so they did: piecing together the many desert recordings they had, recording vocals, turning open jams into songs, casually reinventing their own music. They did a lot of writing, but also a lot of shredding. Of the 20 or so songs they ended up with, they only kept those that felt more natural and immediately fit in with Chhom Nimol’s one-of-a-kind vocal style. It had to be spontaneous. If in the past the band had extensively worked and reworked songs until they felt right for her, this time things simply had to come naturally. Tracks that sounded too tricky or had too many parts were swiftly scrapped. Dengue Fever were looking for a cohesive, mellow vibe. More than in the past, they set to play minimal, repetitive sounds, choosing nuance over intricate composition. And what they eventually emerged with was an album unlike anything else they had ever worked on. Ting Mong.
In Cambodian culture, a Ting Mong is an effigy of protection, a scarecrow-like figure usually placed at the entrance of a village or a home. It wards off diseases and evil spirits. We’re all in desperate need of a Ting Mong, band members occurred.
Here is Dengue Fever’s take on the concept of Ting Mong, then: half hour of mellow, soothing music. A response to what they were looking at when they first conceived it – walking among cactuses, flowers and snakes between recording sessions made the music subtler, and the players more observant – but also a reaction to what humanity at large faces. If life kept proving so jarring, they figured they’d gravitate towards a sound that could be comforting. As they were writing and recording, they never formally discussed it, but they ended up creating a record that has the feel of one long movement, where different songs are brought together by a similar groovy, soul-searching flow – you can put the album on, lay back and meditate to it.
More than any previous Dengue Fever release, Ting Mong embraces electronic elements, too: there are vintage drum machines, analog synths, a subtle use of sequencing and drum programming that conjures a different pulse. The band’s improvisational flair, always a crucial component to their live performances, was brought into the studio with mesmerizing results. Some of the songs we now get to hear went through many different changes, eagerly malleable to pure, spontaneous instinct. Take slow-burning centrepiece ‘Prohok In My Suitcase’, for instance: once Chhom Nimol added vocals to an already intriguing instrumental, the song called for new, freshly inspired rhythm parts. “We’d work on something until it became even more pure”, bassist Senon Williams enthuses. “What we should make had nothing to do with this album – it was always a feeling of want, not should”.
On Ting Mong, Dengue Fever’s unmistakable amalgam of styles and musical traditions is at its most cohesive and prismatic. There’s Chhmon Nimol’s Cambodian identity, of course, in constant dialogue with the discursive playing of a tight band that has always proudly contained multitudes. Whether they’re evoking psychedelia or surf rock, Afro grooves or vintage soundtracks, there’s a dense, profound curiosity characterising these mysicians playingone solidly built on life experience.
Elements of exotica surface over the course of Ting Mong, particularly on tracks such as ‘Late Checkout at the Cedarwood Inn’, with its Martin Denny vibe. But it’s exotica turned inside out: traditionally a musical solution for platonic escapism, in the hands of this global-trotting group it is a reflection of real life. “One of the reasons why Dengue Fever has not come off as a kitsch band is because of the honesty of what we play”, Williams considers. “Each of us plays from their own perspective, we don’t emanate anything that is outside of our experience”. Their 2003 self-titled debut had featured covers of Cambodian songs – an acclaimed singer in her native country before she moved to the United States, Chhom Nimol had never been in a band that wrote its own music. Since then, Dengue Fever have perfected their unique language, resolutely focusing on original material. It’s not unlike what Cambodian rock did in the 60s and 70s, taking the electric sounds coming from the West and reimagining them altogether. It’s an exciting endless cycle filled with surprises and memorable songs.
‘Touch Me Not’ opens the album with one of Nimol’s finest vocal performances to date. It originated from a tune she started singing one day – she wrote the lyrics and the band built hypnotic, desert-tinged music around it. ‘Silver Fish’ was named after a small bug that eats paper: it’s a reflection on erasing the past and being unable to learn from its mistakes. The treble-heavy guitar parts Zac Holtzman recorded for the song were influenced by the phin guitar played by Thai musicians. Being invited to perform at world music festivals, and meeting musicians from all around the globe, has always been a cherished influence for the band, whose third full-length Venus on Earth won them the award for Best Fusion Album in the 2009 edition of the Independent Music Awards. But for Dengue Fever the next musical or lyrical epiphany can come from closer to home, too. Take ‘Room 720’, for instance: cradled by dusty Western guitars and light touches of eerie electronics, Nimol’s voice, itself close to a ghostly presence, sings about a haunted hotel in Phoenix, Arizona the group were once guests of…and mysteriously lost a pair boots to.
Ting Mong is equal parts soil and air, the many indelible real places that birthed it and the timeless world-embracing spirit that inhabits its sound. ‘Wake Me Up Slowly’, with its two melodies floating over the same rhythm, perfectly captures its constantly daydreaming state. Wherever your mind is taking you is a better place than the one you’ll be waking up to, Dengue Fever confide. Far from noise, day-to-day frenzy and uninventive expectations, Ting Mong proves a one-way ticket to that very dream state.
Dengue Fever is: Chhom Nimol (vocals), Zac Holtzman (guitar/vocals), Ethan Holtzman (keyboards), David Ralicke (horns), Paul Smith (drums) and Senon Williams (bass)
KCRW Presents: Dengue Fever at the Lodge Room on Wednesday, September 27.