Cannibal Courtship sees Cambodian/American rockers Dengue Fever return with their first album since 2008’s Venus On Earth, an album that helped establish them as purveyors of exotically charged psychedelic guitar rock. On Cannibal Courtship the core of the band is still made up of brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman and Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol. It also sees the band retain one of their defining characteristics, namely the delivery of vocals in both English and Cambodian national language, Khmer.
This vocal mix lends a unique, unfamiliar quality to their music and quite often casts them as the kind of band that you might see in a dimly-lit bar scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Indeed, much of the music on this album continues the band’s soundtrack-friendliness, a quality previously evidenced by some of their older tracks cropping up in several films (most prominently in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers and Matt Dillon’s City Of Ghosts).
Opening title track Cannibal Courtship sees bright vocal harmonies give way to blasts of guitar whilst Nimol implores an unnamed other to “be my sacrificial lamb”. Cement Slippers continues this theme, all choppy, zigzagging guitar riffs and buoyant vocal melodies.
It is not until the third track Uku that the Khmer vocals first appear. It signals a distinct shift in style resulting in an aching, more pensive sound. The same applies to Sister In The Radio, a similarly sorrowful, slow-paced elegy. Nimol’s vocals veer between softly delivered, heartfelt pleas and shrill, fluctuating wails and may be an acquired taste for some. It is these tracks delivered in Khmer however that arguably come across as most distinctive and original.
Family Business sees the band revert back to brash, synth-supplemented guitar workouts. The album features some moments of slacker humour along the way and they are not overly concerned about including the occasional insalubrious lyric. This is especially true on Only A Friend, as Zac Holtzman reiterates the crude lyric “I’m overseas, flirting with girls and catching diseases” over a taut, ascending guitar riff.
Thank You Goodbye is a soaring, melodic slab of infectious power-pop and sees Nimol coldly serenade a would-be admirer with lines such as “Please let it go, you’re just another stamp in my passport”. The fragrant instrumental Kiss Of The Bufo Alvarius serves as a reminder of their ability to produce evocative little pieces suited for the big screen. Final track Durian Dowry has more in the way of weeping, longing vocals over understated guitars and brass. In some ways it is a slightly muted way to close the album, certainly after some of the more colourful moments experienced along the way.
Cannibal Courtship is another installment of oriental-flavoured guitar pop that strives to meld alternative guitar sounds with Far Eastern sensibilities. However it never quite matches the standard of its predecessor and ultimately it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that their sound is just a little too different and unconventional to see them rise above the status of a minor cult band.