aming one’s band VietNam is bound to invite some controversy, some confusion, and some pleas for a formidable explanation. Little did Michael Gerner and Joshua Grubb know when they chose the moniker that it would mirror their career trajectory: a quagmire of a deal with Vice Records, a nomadic existence that took them from Austin to Williamsburg and into the heart of darkness that is Los Angeles, and now a battle for reputable aesthetics they are too green to fight. To their credit, the duo (now a quartet) did scratch out five songs of scruffy, drug-addled psych on The Concrete’s Always Grayer on the Other Side of the Street, but the world wasn’t listening.
Three years later, VietNam’s official coming-out party, their self-titled full-length for Kemado, straddles the line between a pseudo-protest album and the regurgitated work of thieves. In an effort to conjure up the communal feeling their name suggests, the record succeeds (to a degree) by enlisting a handful of friends (Paz Lenchantin, Jenny Lewis, Future Pigeon) to join in and enhance their grab bag of ’60s rock revivals. But this isn’t the polished Basement Tapes cut with modern dope that the band seemingly strives to create (though they have the potential to do so). The folly of VietNam’s grand statement lies with Gerner. It’s his ambiguous soapboxing and puff-chested braggadocio that bogs an otherwise gorgeous slab of big-sky psychedelia.
Gerner did have the good fortune of growing up around a classic vinyl collection. He was probably enunciating like Dylan before he could walk, sneaking songs from Transformer onto mixtapes for his junior high girlfriends, and experimenting with drugs to Royal Trux’s Cats and Dogs. The osmosis failed though, as the emulation of his influences sounds forced and borders on condescension. “Priest, Poet, & the Pig,” for instance, has an epic quality about it, but its teenage parable is a garbled mess. “Mr. Goldfinger” goes one step further, upping the raunch with lines like “It ain’t easy giving head to a man almost dead/sometimes greed is a lucrative job,” while attempting to convey a fuck-all ’tude towards the music industry without considering why the band was courted in the first place. Much of Gerner’s down-and-out memoirs do carry some weight textually, it’s his delivery that is empty; once you arrive at the “How many times…” hypotheses posed in “Gabe,” you’ll wish he kept his mouth shut.
It’s a shame, because musically speaking VietNam is as rousing and backwoods as that other bearded band (My Morning Jacket). Producer Dave Scher (whose Beachwood Sparks’ fingerprints are all over this) wrangles in the group’s manic range of influences enough to award them a bigger-than-themselves sound: symphonic Spiritualized send-ups introduce “Step on Inside,” Floydian atmosphere bookends “Priest, Poet, & the Pig,” a sensual slide melody and reverb-drenched choir complement “Summer in the City’s” standard folk sing-a-long. He also sublets a mass of space for Grubb’s unhinged guitar freak-outs, which twang, roam, and slither around as the album’s most important voice, though I’m convinced he’d be put to better use in a band like Comets on Fire.
Forgiving Gerner’s misguided wisdom may not set you free, but there is plenty on VietNam to dig into, if only you see past the pot-smoke preaching from that fool on the hill.
Reviewed by: Kevin J. Elliott
Reviewed on: 2007-01-23