No band this decade has so literally approximated their sound with their physical appearance and name as the Brooklyn-based VietNam. You'd think the band's debut LP was from a time when free love and LSD were commonplace. The vintage-looking flesh-toned cover is, quite simply, basic: no vibrant psychedelic colors or flashy graphics; just their name scrawled in red and a small, crooked black-and-white photo of four bearded longhairs—vocalist/rhythm guitarist Michael Gerner, lead guitarist Joshua Grubb, bassist Ivan Berko, and drummer Michael Foss. When it's put on the stereo, what you hear is what you see—an ageless, feel-good, coarsely poetic lot of stomping, swaggering jams that haven't been heard in decades.
VietNam With the Lemonheads and Hymns. Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave., 206- 441-5611, www.thecrocodile.com. $18 adv./ $20 DOS. 8 p.m. Tues., Nov. 28.
"The hippie thing, that's just a product of the last few years," says Grubb, who founded the band with Gerner in 2002 after the two had moved from Texas to the Big Apple. "When we went on the first tour, we thought 'what is the most punk-rock thing we could do,' so we all wore tie-dye."
That tour, in 2004, happened before the freak-folk explosion rose to the surface, so there were many instances when VietNam were pigeonholed and scorched in reviews by critics who couldn't stomach the free- spirited, smoke-friendly, ragtag vibes. "They spent more time talking about hating the band than hating the music," says Grubb. "They could never attack the music. Comparing us to Bob Dylan or Velvet Underground is fine by me. But just to say every song sounds like "Heroin" or Spacemen 3 or Southern rock makes you sound like a dumb-ass. We are doing something different, but they don't know how to describe it."
At the time, VietNam had just released their EP, The Concrete's Always Grayer on the Other Side of the Street, for Vice Records (the label created by Vice magazine), when they went on the road with their punky labelmates Death From Above 1979. Worse yet, the record was sent out for review three weeks after it was released without a bio or information about the band.
"We knew it was going to be under the radar, but we didn't know it was going to be that under the radar," says Grubb. "We thought they'd at least put an ad in the magazine, but they didn't even do that."
Grubb adds, "Vice's reputation at the time was during the New York backlash. People were ready to taste the blood in their mouths and martyr the bands."
Despite mixed reviews, the band stuck with it, toured the country, and played SXSW in 2005. For the next year, the band was busy putting together the pieces for a full-length, including reworking material Grubb and Gerner wrote before they called themselves VietNam. Over a month's span in the summer of 2005, the band hunkered down in L.A. to record at the famed Sound City Studios (Nirvana's Nevermind, Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours). "It was our one chance to put it all together as one package," says Grubb.
And what a fine package VietNam is. Sure, you're going to hear some Dylan in Gerner's voice on "The Priest, the Poet, and the Pig" and "Toby," and especially on "Gabe," when his propulsive, upbeat poetic prose is delivered so commandingly, there is little time left for breath. You're going to hear the Velvet Underground on "Welcome to My Room." And yes, there are bits of Spacemen 3's arid, drug-induced dreaminess on "Summer in the City" and the gritty bluesiness of the Stones on "Mr. Goldfinger," "Apocalypse," and "Toby." In fact, the album's leadoff track, "Step on Inside," doesn't hesitate to call out the naysayers from a few years ago. Sings Gerner, "And never judge a book by its cover/And don't believe everything you read/Well, that's too, too many rules to fool with you independent heads/You were too busy reading this month's magazine/So you know what to do and what to say."
Certainly, I could go on and on about parts of any of VietNam's songs that sound like something else, but that's precisely the point I'm trying to reach. The album exposes a handful of influences, but when listened to from front to back, in its entirety, it's apparent that the band morphs, twists, and tangles them into a unique creation that is entirely their own. VietNam are opening our eyes and ears to stuff we didn't even see coming. And now, we're about to feel the boom.