There are two ways Americans can think of Vietnam: 1) our worst military debacle to date, or 2) a drug-crazed (they were kicked off a tour with Panthers and Death From Above 1979 for "overindulging"), ragtag and entirely lovable band of four friends from Brooklyn, N.Y., who look and sound like they were hermetically sealed circa 1972.
After releasing a slightly indulgent EP, The Concrete's Always Grayer on the Other Side of the Street, on Vice Records in 2004, VietNam switched labels, ventured out to Los Angeles and recorded their eponymous debut album, VietNam (Kemado), one of the year's finest (so far).
As previously suggested, VietNam is a contemporary band in the most literal way: They are currently making music. Time frames aside, one need only look at the group (the beards, the flannel-vest combos, the floppy hats, the drug-induced emaciation) or listen to their music--reminding of Dylan backed by the Hawks (the soon-to-be the Band), or Crazy Horse, or the Grateful Dead--to realize that time and place are all these dudes have in common with the rest of us.
In other bands, such traceable influences and appearances often come off as disingenuous--generally like the second-rate, filtered version of the music and style being aped--but VietNam, if their press materials are to be believed, are not playing for the cameras, mainly because the cameras are not particularly interested at this moment. Yet with an album this thrilling and a live act both gritty and engaging (check them out in the archives of daytrotter.com), it's only a matter of time before hipsters replace their mustaches for beards and their striped shirts for tattered tanktops.
Despite their strong and odd clutch of friends and connections (Jenny Lewis and Maroon 5 to name a couple), the group remains noticeably under the radar, which is probably just as well for a band that got its start--and continues to thrive--in a musical commune (a house, loft or storefront, depending on who you ask or what you read) in Brooklyn. Born from jams that come and go like squatters and dealers, VietNam is saturated with songs as varied as the epic, space-rock eulogy "Toby," and the four-on-the-floor tough rumble of "Welcome to My Room." In the music and world of VietNam, beauty and idiosyncrasy not only coexist, but fuel each other.
Throughout their debut--recorded entirely in analog (of course) at Sound City and Sound Factory in Los Angeles--vocalist/guitarist Michael Gerner sings like he's caught between squealing for joy and moaning for his life; it's a unique voice equally hoarse and honey-sweet. Meanwhile, guitarist Josh Grubb channels the likes of Jerry Garcia and Mick Ronson while the rhythm section, Michael Foss (drums) and Ivan Berko (bass), keep an even keel until called on to erupt. As tightly synched as the album is, it never sounds rehearsed, and its in-the-moment glory is perhaps its greatest charm.
One could get philosophical about a current band that so effortlessly embodies the youthful indulgence and rebellion of another era of similar artistic and political turmoil, but the group's incendiary music seems to demand more than mere associative responses: These guys may be the genuine article. Although there are notes of politics throughout the album (as well as in the group's name), the unconnected mini-suite of chugging barnburner "Priest, Poet and the Pig" and explosive wailer "ApocLAypse" prove that the music, first and foremost, is the grandest statement of all for VietNam; simply put, they rock.
From opener "Step on Inside," a buzzing waltz that provides the perfect primer, to the sparse blowout of closer "Too Tired," VietNam is made for parties, and, perhaps appropriately, it's not always a good time. There are moments of monumental joy, like the acoustic sing-along "Summer in the City" and "Gabe," the ode to losing oneself (senses and all) abroad, but such feel-good numbers are exceptions. What the group does best can be found in their balance between psychedelic dirges and bluesy rockers that both enrapture and frighten. The album is perhaps best encapsulated by songs like "Mr. Goldfinger," a jaunty blues-strut about a truly lecherous character, or the aforementioned "Toby," a eulogy to the titular character whose youthful indulgence led to his demise.
With numbers about entering and exiting on shaky ground as its bookends, and a smattering of unpleasantly themed--but pleasant sounding--tracks in between, VietNam is like any drug trip: a mixture of the giddy and the sublime. Ultimately, what the group has most in common with its predecessors is its remarkable ability to challenge and excite listeners with music both aggressive and laid back. Watching and hearing this gang of misfits bang out its particularly madhouse collusion of sound and spectacle is a trip that is hard to pass up.