“This world is big and wild and half insane,” wrote Ray Davies fifty-five years ago, suggesting we escape to a place and time where “people are real people, not just playing.” Our world is still (if not, WAY more) big, wild and perhaps three-quarters insane. Everyone needs a tranquil, protected space, and music can take you there. Dengue Fever’s new album, “Ting Mong,” does just that. The veteran Cambodian American band’s first album in more than eight years provides a beautiful, melancholy tableau perfect for internal contemplation and external defense.
“Ting Mong,” the title of the album, is Khmer for an effigy. As Senon Williams, the band’s bassist and collaborator instructs us, the music, like an effigy, protects us in exactly the same way that a scarecrow protects crops. The music contained in “Ting Mong” is beautiful, groovy and transformative—which listeners can choose to lean on for protection from the outside world, or meditatively turn inward, or get carried away to another place—a thirty-minute-plus vacation that can be really therapeutic and fun.
Dengue Fever is a unique and creative combination of six individuals with very similar sensibilities combining multifaceted musicians and composers with roots in garage, punk, surf, funk and Afrobeat—and topping it off with a Cambodian lead singer (Chhom Nimol, who in 1997 won Cambodia’s first Apsara Awards, a contest similar to “American Idol”). Nimol sings in Khmer, Cambodia’s native language, but you don’t need to be fluent in the language to comprehend the emotion. As Williams notes, she “conveys such heavy soul with her voice… that is musically evocative regardless of what the lyrics are. First, you grip the music and then find the meaning.” And the meaning in the lyrics, when translated, deal with love, loss and relationships. As Nimol writes and sings in “Room 720”:
Radio waves Fuzz
Whispers to me
Warm in my ear
Wave after wave
Rolls over us
Wave after wave
Is holding us down
Ocean swallows the sun
Like maraschino cherry
At the bottom
Of your drink
(translated from Khmer to English)
Waves are truly applicable here, as Nimol’s vocal serves as its own musical instrument—bobbing like a letter in a bottle over waves. The breezy, atmospheric, rhythmic vibe is not surprising: the album was primarily recorded around Joshua Tree. “Late Checkout at the Cedarwood Inn” is a standout instrumental that provides a forward-moving Ennio Morricone-style Western soundtrack, “Silver Fish” layers Nimol’s plaintive vocal over the twangy guitar and Sunday-driver beat, while “Touch Me Not” seems to cross both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans—ending up in Ireland with bagpipe-sounding riffs.
The variety of stimuli associated with “Ting Mong” is consistent with Dengue Fever’s goal of delivering an entire album of feelings and experiences—not individual songs. As Williams points out, this is contrary to our culture of singles and songs. As a composer, performer and listener, he likes records that carry him from the beginning to the end. Just as the Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society” was intended to take listeners from 1968 back to a calm, safe place and time, “Ting Mong” can take you internally, externally or existentially to your own peaceful, safe and contemplative place.
“Ting Mong” is a breezy musical piece worth the time to listen to—wherever it might transport you. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Stream it here.
Bart Lazar is a Chicago-based independent music journalist, vinyl DJ, playlist creator and concert producer. Bart has a monthly residency at Sportsman’s Club where he educates hipsters on fifty years of independent music. In addition to Newcity, Bart’s writing can be found on his blog, www.oldpunksrule.com and his book “Declaration of (Dis) Interest” is available on Amazon. By day, Bart is a partner at Seyfarth where he is one of the nation’s leading advertising, data privacy and intellectual property attorneys. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org