Led by brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman and fronted by the exquisite vocalist Chhom Nimol, Dengue Fever combines the traditional sound of Southeast Asia with Western pop values, and the result is enchanting. Across eight albums, Dengue Fever has managed to have it both ways: remaining uncompromising to their established musical vision while crafting wonderfully accessible, mesmerizing music.
Ting Mong is the group’s (sixth? seventh? eighth?) latest long player (there have been several EPs and a set of other artists’ music curated by the band as well), and plays the Dengue Fever’s strengths. Nimol sings exclusively in Khmer, but the old adage about music being the universal language is especially apt. The beauty of her vocals conveys the emotion quite effective. And the instrumental backing is sublime, subtle and inventive. Wholly free of gimmickry, the music on Ting Mong is contemplative, dreamy and alluring.
By its very nature, this music is exotic, almost otherworldly. But it’s also connected enough to western musical conventions to feel warm and inviting. Listeners can luxuriate in the sonic landscape, or let Ting Mong play in the background; it works equally well both ways. And the band isn’t afraid to deviate ever-so-slightly from its established musical construct: Zac Holtzman takes the lead vocal for “Great on Paper,” a tune that might remind some listeners a bit (but just a bit) of Khurangbin.
As fine as any title in Dengue Fever’s back catalog certainly is, newcomers are encouraged to start in the here-and-now with Ting Mong. If (as I suspect) you’re won over by the group’s unique approach, you’ll have a great deal of back catalog material to explore.