Venus on Earth, the third album from L.A.-based Cambodian pop outfit Dengue Fever, arrives on the heels of what has been a very good past few years for the band. Following its highly acclaimed 2005 sophomore album, Escape from Dragon House, the band not only performed in Cambodia (the first Western-based band to perform Khmer music there since Pol Pot’s regime in 1975) but was the subject of a documentary called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which focused on the members’ first visit to Cambodia.
Although it’s short on the unabashed fun and heart-on-sleeve affectivity rooted in ’70s Cambodian pop that made Escape from Dragon House such a good time, Venus on Earth, with all its surf-heavy, genre-bending arrangements, establishes Dengue Fever as a band unafraid to defy categorization.
Cambodian native Chhom Nimol, often singing in her native Khmer language, is at once coy and seductive, playful and perilously foreboding. Her vocals are the hypnotic hum seducing listeners under; the velvet ribbon tenderly wrapped around each song. Nimol sings effortlessly in Khmer, enabling the songs to retain a sense of mystery, creating an allure as exotic as the songstress herself. When a track like “Tooth and Nail” switches its language from English to Khmer, the sense of danger and the unknown is amplified.
The band itself is top notch here. A sextet that includes founding brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, Nimol on vocals, and a rhythm and horn section so tight that it wouldn’t be surprising if Mark Ronson hijacked them for the next Amy Winehouse record. The band has also grown quite adept at swapping genres; from surf, Khmer rock, psychedelic, ’60s pop, and so on, they’ve rightly patterned out a distinct sound.
On “Oceans of Venus,” a menacing surf-guitar riff is embellished with David Ralicke’s jazz-ready horns. Elsewhere, “Laugh Track,” boasts a ’70s spy-theme vibe infused with Cambodian-pop melodies and a gospel-heavy Hammond organ. It’s surprising, then, that three of the eleven tracks — “Monsoon of Perfume,” “Integration,” and “Tooth and Nail” — are all lead-heavy ballads that, while fine in small doses, collectively snuff out some of the fun of Venus.