Dengue Fever Collects Classic Cambodian Rock and Pop on Startling Compilation

Various Artists, Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia (Minky Records)

Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever has dedicated its career to bringing Cambodian rock to American audiences. This compilation, collecting classic tracks from 1960s Cambodia, is a natural outgrowth. Most of the performances are by Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, two of the top female stars of their day. Both are believed to have been murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

What's most startling about some of these songs is how utterly unforeign they are. "Give Me One Kiss" and "Don't Speak" could have been lifted directly from an American garage-rock comp. Everything's in place: the grungy production, the atavistic guitar solos, the (translated) assertive song titles. Eastern touches, like the sinuous rhythm on "Flowers in the Pond," could have been perpetrated by a Western rocker trying to add an exotic hook. Even on such tracks, though, the big difference is the singing. The female vocals are nasal and soaked in vibrato. Even more striking is the voice of Sinn Sisamouth, Cambodia's biggest male star of the time. Featured on a single duet with Pan Ron, his voice manages to be simultaneously quavering and supple, both giggle-worthy and affecting. And it has a bossa nova shuffle with flute—it's miles away from garage rock.

There are a several other deviations from the mean. Ros Sereysothea's "I Will Starve Myself to Death," for example, starts with a slow, eerie quasi-chant before shifting into a horn-flecked grind; Pan Ron's "I Want to Be Your Lover" is built around a Spanish guitar. As with any comp like this, you feel like you're barely scratching the surface, with every stylistic variation suggesting a mountain of buried music. If Dengue Fever ever puts together a follow-up comp, I'm there.