This ain’t the 21st Century Manson Family nightmare you imagined. These aren’t run-of-the-mill weird beards, freak folkies, or whatever you prefer to label the fashionable post-hippie subculture that’s emerged in the last few years. This is the pure unadulterated electric blues based rock’n’roll of Vietnam. They’ll remind you less of The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and The Velvet Underground than they will Music From Big Pink, Blood on the Tracks, Tonight’s The Night, Loaded, and other rare moments when distinct musical voices have delivered very straightforward yet compelling rock’n’roll.


Thus far Vietnam only has a single commercial release to its credit – an EP that Vice Records released but didn’t do much to promote a couple of years ago. So, while you’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of them, be forewarned that Vietnam is poised to drop some serious rock bombs on the world in coming months. Last month they completed the mixing of their still-untitled and unmastered full-length debut. These eleven epics of the blackest night range from rocking to contemplative, and, production-wise, from raw to Specteresque. There’re just enough strings, horns, and backing vocals to broaden the horizons – but not so much that distracts from the whole or polishes the grit. And, despite their tendency towards high fidelity and grandiose ornamentation, the record never loses its personal touch. I’ve had a hard time listening to anything else since they handed me a copy.

Vietnam’s drift towards a pure rock sound will of course confound the critics of two years ago who said they were too derivative of Spiritualized, Spaceman 3, Jesus and the Mary Chain, and other spatial two-chord minimalists. While the band departed from this sound some time ago, traces of these more monochrome influences are definitely one of the more unique features of the band’s sound. Another element distinguishing them from other classic rockers is their combination of jaded New York urbanity and a raw twangy, occasionally acid-tinged, Texas eccentricity. While it would be an oversimplification to say that their sound merely reflects their musical geography, three-fourths of the band are Texas-to-New York transplants, and they started performing as Vietnam after moving back to Texas, before winding up in New York once more. An illustration of this binary in action is the time when asked them if they would do a cover song single for my label and they couldn’t decide between Suicide and Roky Erickson.

Everybody knows that rock’n’roll is pure voodoo. All feeling. Rock’s mythology has always championed those things that can’t be quantified. There’s no boundary between the music and the lifestyle. That’s why rock is obsessed with authenticity – lifers and posers. The lifers sell their soul, but in return get the secret rock knowledge. The poseurs are either tourists, on business vacations, or those who want to sell their souls but just don’t know where to go to do so. In an era saturated by the mediocre music that’s rendered the genre all but invalid, rock doesn’t come naturally and can’t be learned in school. It must develop through years of living and listening experience.

Though I can’t tell you how Vietnam obtained their secret knowledge, I can tell you where they’ve been. Vietnam’s sound may have been different had they achieved a certain measure of success early on. The band’s long winding staircase has thus far been comprised almost exclusively of little victories. But this long journey of baby steps and setbacks has proved necessary – leading them from their extremely stylized and somewhat derivative roots to something completely their own. What follows are the details of the trials and travails, or trails and travels, of this unique band across American culture.




© New York Night Train , 2006