News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Dengue Fever Seeks 'Venus on Earth'

Some of today's best world music acts spring from the discovery of an obscure passion. For brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, it was 1960s Cambodian pop music — Khmer tunes at once delicate and brash, with a carefree innocence haunted by a sense of lingering menace.

Living in Los Angeles with its large Cambodian community, the Holtzmans and their American cohorts were able to recruit an exceptionally talented lead singer, Chhom Nimol. And in 2001, Dengue Fever was born.

The group started out by covering songs that had inspired them, but the tracks on Venus on Earth are all original compositions. They veer between Khmer pop, film noir soundtrack, surf rock and folky, teenybopper hit parade fare, right out of the late '60s.

Venus on Earth finds Chhom Nimol singing more songs in English, in duo with Zac Holtzman. But for my money, Dengue Fever really hit their stride when they rock out and let Nimol lay into quirky, melodramatic Khmer melodies.

Venus on Earth is more spare, and maybe a little less wild, than Dengue Fever's breakout album, Escape from Dragon House. This time around there's room for teenage angst, and even introspective balladry.

There is a thread that runs through the '60s pop that inspired those old Khmer rockers, and it continues right on in Dengue Fever's eclectic work. The songs are simple, the hooks strong, the arrangements clever and fun. And that's the stuff that make us fall in love with pop songs, regardless of genre, era or language.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Banning Eyre