Im not too sure whats supposed to be happening in this Dengue Fever photo. It doesnt look the guys even told front woman Chhom Nimol about their little tableau.
  • Marc Walker
  • I’m not too sure what’s supposed to be happening in this Dengue Fever photo. It doesn’t look the guys even told front woman Chhom Nimol about their little tableau.

Los Angeles-based six-piece Dengue Fever devote themselves to Cambodian pop of the 60s and 70s, which combines traditional singing with a playful riot of Western flavors, most prominently bluesy garage rock, organ-soaked psychedelia, and reverb-crazed surf music. It was nearly driven to extinction by the genocides of the Khmer Rouge, but it’s hardly been forgotten by Cambodians, for many of whom it represents a sunnier, more innocent time in the country’s history.

Dengue Fever’s sole Cambodian member, front woman Chhom Nimol, was born into a musical family in Battambang and came to the U.S. in 2001, the same year the band got started; she was finally granted citizenship in late 2014. For several albums now Dengue Fever have focused on original material, and on Tue 1/27 they’ll release The Deepest Lake, their sixth full-length (and the first on their own label, Tuk Tuk).

I’ve had a soft spot for these folks ever since my old band Brilliant Pebbles opened for them in 2008 at the Empty Bottle. They were fun, eager, and unpretentious, and we bonded over the fact that both our bands had immigrant members who sometimes struggled to make themselves clear in English.

Today’s 12 O’Clock Track is the lead single from The Deepest Lake, “No Sudden Moves.” I like the frisky, stair-stepping horn-and-guitar licks that first appear in the intro, especially the way they mesh with the funky bass vamp. I’m a sucker for surfy exotica too.

Of course, not much in Dengue Fever’s music can compete with Nimol’s sinuous, sensual, knife-edged voice—her beautiful high notes reliably give me chills. And on this song, she does something I’ve never heard from her before: I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “rapping,” but it’s close. As a bonus, it allows those of us who don’t speak Khmer to better make out its occasional bitten-off syllables and unfamiliar diphthongs.

The video for “No Sudden Moves” looks like part prison melodrama, part Mexican soap opera, and part hallucination scene from a student film. So what’s going on? Guitarist and cosongwriter Zac Holtzman, who helps with the band’s lyrics, explained the story behind the song in the LA Weekly.

“That one is about a guy who lived in a meth house that was across the street from our studio,” he says. “A guy was going to prison for a while and he dropped his dog off so they’d take care of it.” Things escalated quickly from there, alas, and the dog ended up attacking three tenants after one of them accidentally smacked it in the face with a plastic bag: “This woman came running out screaming with a big slab of meat hanging off of her arm and her bone sticking out.”

The people in the house strangled the dog, or thought they did—after they came home from the hospital and went to sleep, intending to bury the animal in the morning, the dog regained consciousness and attacked them again. This time, though, the tenants stabbed it to death. “I was kinda rooting for the dog,” says Holtzman. “We told this story from the guy in prison’s perspective.”

All right then! That clears everything up. Enjoy!

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.