Let’s turn this review of Brooklyn band Vietnam into a cooking show, shall we? Back in 1979 my buddy Steds and I were drunk, bored, and hungry, so we resolved to make like Julia Child and cook a stew. We added all the stock ingredients but the results were decidedly lackluster, so we improvised. A good cook works with what’s at hand, and what we had at hand was lots of beer, a tab of acid, a bottle of whiskey, a couple of placidyl, and a half ounce of skunk weed, which we tossed in willy-nilly.
Unfortunately the stew still lacked panache, so we scoured the house for additional ingredients. And in went a couple of dozen imitation quaaludes, some triple sec, a bottle of Benadryl, a handful of magic mushrooms, a thorazine (the nutmeg of antipsychotics) left over from a Devo show, and a half-bottle of ancient codeine cough syrup we found tucked away in the furthest reaches of the bathroom medicine cabinet. And voila! What we had on our hands, cheeks, and foreheads–it became apparent after just a few spoonfuls how miniscule a space the mouth occupies on the human face–was a concoction potent enough to turn the Iron Chef to Jello.
Which brings us to Brooklyn’s Vietnam, which mixes rock, blues, soul, and ambient noise with the same reckless abandon that Steds and I mixed stew ingredients. Vietnam’s sound leans heavily towards the blues, but nobody is ever going to mistake these guys for Stevie Ray Vaughan; Vietnam’s blues are messy, often meandering, and very dissonant, and would cause even Captain Beefheart to roll over in his grave. The band put out a pair of promising releases in the mid-2000s only to quietly vanish in 2007, when chief songwriter and vocalist Michael Gerner up and moved to LA to explore his interest in ambient analog synthesizer music, which is quite scintillating stuff if you happen to be a refrigerator.
I’d be the last person to label ambient music a scam–like I say, kitchen appliances seem to enjoy it–but it does bring to mind the infamous story of Babe Buell and Rick Derringer’s girlfriend, who once emptied an electric razor only to discover that its contents looked exactly like cocaine. So they did what anyone would have done: wrapped the contents in tin foil, walked to McDougal Street, and sold the packet for 20 bucks. To some poor sap who had no clue that what he was in fact putting up his nose was Johnny Winter’s pubic hair.
Anyhow, I’m happy to report that Vietnam is back and touring to promote both a new album (an A.merican D.ream) and a single (“Kitchen Kongas”), the latter of which is so great it can’t resist giving itself a round of applause at the end. And lucky for us one of the band’s stops was the Rock & Roll Hotel, where it played its skewed brand of “apocalyptic street blues” on Friday April 19, giving both old fans and neophytes alike the opportunity to hear what Vietnam has been up to since its surprise rise from the dead.
Before I get to the show itself, some background. Vietnam’s 2004 debut The Concrete’s Always Greyer on the Other Side of the Street was decidedly on the raw side–much of it sounds like it was recorded while the producer was in the bathroom snorting Johnny Winter’s pubic hair–and included such half-baked classics as “Prince’s,” on which the guitarists apparently couldn’t be bothered to tune their instruments; the feedback-drenched “Lullabye-bye,” which has the feel of a first take and wouldn’t sound out of place on Neil Young’s druggy masterpiece Tonight’s the Night; and the 12-minute “Makes a Difference,” which sounds like Crazy Horse staggering off into the sunset on a bad mix of peyote and elephant tranquilizers.
The band’s follow-up, 2007’s eponymous Vietnam, was co-produced by Maroon 5 bassist Mickey Madden–evidently they couldn’t get Justin Bieber–of all people, and featured guest vocals by Jenny Lewis. The end result was a more polished and less blues-heavy slab o’vinyl featuring a whole slew of great songs, including the rollicking “Priest, Poet & The Pig,” the Dylanesque “Hotel Riverview,” the Motown-tinged “Step On Inside,” the Jesus and Mary Chain-influenced “Summer in the City” (which is as close as Vietnam has ever come to writing a bona fide pop song), and the old-fashioned guitar rave-up “Welcome to My Room,” which simultaneously summons up the spirits of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, and the Velvet Underground. And aside from the 12-minute “Too Tired,” there wasn’t a single foray into formlessness on it.
Now comes along an A.merican D.ream, and I’m sorry to report it’s a major disappointment. While it boasts some excellent songs–in particular the slow, beautiful “Stucco Roofs,” the propulsive “Kitchen Kongas,” the Velvets and Built to Spill-influenced “Fight Water with Fire,” and the moody and beautiful “Yaz”–for the most part it’s dull, tuneless, and self-indulgent. Does the world really need “1.20.09,” an “Imagine” in miniature with lyrics so dreadful they actually make me nostalgic for Beatle John’s pie-in-the-sky hippie bullshit? Or “W.orld W.ar W.orries,” which features some of the worst lyics since Richard Harris sang about being “Pressed in love’s hot, fevered iron/Like a striped pair of pants”? If I were the veteran rock critic Robert Christgau, who passes out grades to albums like he’s some kind of rock’n’roll Edna Krabapple, I would give an A.merican D.ream a C+. Then dock it half a grade for “Blasphemy Blues,” for giving blasphemy a bad name. Then dock it another half grade for “Flyin’,” for being one really annoying air disaster of a song.
But I wasn’t about to let an A.merican D.ream–or a deluge accompanied by a tornado warning–curb my excitement at seeing Vietnam do their thing at the Rock & Roll Hotel. Unfortunately I missed the opening act due to a bout of gastric distress–I made the foolish mistake of stopping by Burger King on my way to the show to sample their new BTO Classic, only to discover afterwards in the fine print the meat contained within listed as “Randy Bachman”–but arrived just in time to see Vietnam, which in addition to Gerner on vocals and rhythm guitar includes Nathaneal “Lefty” Maynard on lead guitar, Christian Havins on Moog, Gabe Bishop on bass, Christopher Anderson on violin, and Sweet Joey on drums, setting up their equipment.
And for once in my life, I’m at a loss for words. The Manson Family lookalikes in Vietnam (I’m pretty sure that was Tex Watson on drums) played a helter-skelter set of songs that sounded like they were continually teetering on the verge of falling apart. These guys aren’t musicians; they’re tightrope performers who treat rock ‘n roll like a dangerous stroll across a thin wire of form over the tuneless void. Bob Dylan once said, “Chaos is a friend of mine.” If its set was at all representative, I’m certain Vietnam would say the same.
Vietnam’s set was heavy on material from an A.merican D.ream, from “Flyin,”–which I still despised live–to “No Use in Cryin’,” an uncharacteristically straightforward blues that brought to mind Plastic Ono Band era John Lennon, to the propulsive “Kitchen Kongas,” which featured some cool harmonica by Gerner and a great guitar solo by Maynard. Vietnam also played my bete noire “Blasphemy Blues,” and I’ll be damned if I didn’t wind up loving it, because I too love chaos and “Blasphemy Blues” was easily the most meandering, twisted, and generally fucked-up blues song I’ve ever heard. It didn’t hurt that Maynard literally attacked his guitar, playing a pair of really fractured-sounding solos and producing great squalls of feedback with some device he scraped across his strings.
Also from an A.merican D.ream were “Fight Water With Fire,” which utilized loud-soft dynamics and a Built to Spill-like guitar figure, and a very raw-sounding “Yaz,” which featured weird Moog fills, some very unhinged guitar, and great lyrics (“She says she hates beautiful people/Smudging her eyes like burning church steeples/And floats across the floorboards like the scent of a timeless perfume”) culminating in a dissonant coda over which Gerner repeated the lines, “Yaz/You are so beautiful/You are a New York star.”
Vietnam also played several tunes from 2007’s Vietnam, including the fast-paced “Priest, Poet & The Pig,” which was guitar-heavy and boasted a very Dylanesque set of lyrics; show closer “Welcome to My Room,” which was just as frenetic a guitar workout live as it is on record; the slow, bluesy “Too Tired”; and “Step On Inside,” a great midtempo number featuring some cool lyrics (“And never judge a book by its cover/And don’t believe everything that you’ve read/Well that’s two too many rules to fool the new independent heads”) and a great chorus. Unfortunately the song was almost ruined by some very distracting drum vibrations caused by the guitars, totally screwing up the sound.
Vietnam also played “Apocalypse,” a slow, beautiful blues boasting some very Dylan-like vocals from Gerner, gales of off-kilter blues guitar from Maynard, and storms of fuzz from Havins on Moog. Finally, Vietnam played a cool midtempo blues I didn’t recognize, but which Gerner told me afterwards is called “Mama Loi,” was recorded in New Orleans, and is slated to be Vietnam’s next single.
As for Steds and I, we ate that stew for the next three days, during which time we invented a new form of “intuitive chess” played with the six or so random items on our kitchen table (Steds usually won) and took a hike in the mountains, which turned out to be a mistake. Every time Steds saw a fellow hiker he’d point a quivering and accusing finger, shriek “Zombie!” then run full speed in the opposite direction. Afterwards he’d mutter, “Christ, Little, don’t you know a zombie when you see one? The woods are crawling with them. And one of them looked just like John Denver!” In hindsight, the only thing missing over those three days was Vietnam. We’d have loved them. To us they would have sounded completely normal.
Photos: Richie Downs