It was assumed that after the release of their 2007 debut VietNam sort of just dissipated – the rock’n'soul outfit seemed to evaporate, leaving no hints of further material or where they disappeared to. Conspiracy theorists went bananas. In reality, primary songwriter and orchestrator Michael Gerner cosied up with a few Moogs in California and set about creating ambient synth soundtracks for films, focusing on side project D.A. and generally just keeping to himself.
It’s strange, then, that we have an A.merican D.ream, the follow-up to that 2007 debut, at all; the line up for the group is different now, but arguably, the affinity for ’60s revivalist rock, stoner sermons and hippie furore hasn’t strayed too far. It’s like they were never gone, and some mysterious power has just plonked VietNam back into our plane of existence. Did anyone else catch Alcatraz? The 4400?
The band have regularly drawn comparisons to The Velvet Underground and the earlier work of Bob Dylan, with ragged rock riffs and stretched-out chunks of ’60s nostalgia backing Gerner’s “stick it to the man” lyrical motifs. Some cuts, like ‘Stucco Roofs’ shamble onwards, veering between ironic chillwave dissonance and the classic rock that has so clearly inspired VietNam. There are times when it seems that Gerner isn’t really paying attention to the fact this is a record, seemingly improvising words and just letting his consciousness spew out of his rambling lips. It adds a rawness to the record, despite being a bit hit or miss – it can feel preachy at times, like the music is second fiddle to the message – though on the whole, the “madman ranting” effect works. Just.
‘Kitchen Kongas’ glistens under summery pop-rock guitar riffs and exotic percussion, and it’s here that Gerner is providing a passionate dance track with buckets of oomph and hook-laden bass; it may trail off during the outro – a duet between applause and organs – but it still remains a much more mainstream effort, recalling the psychedelic rock of days gone by. ‘Blasphemy Blues’ is synth-infused Delta blues, with slovenly slide guitar and hulking zephyr pads looming in the darkness. Similarly, 8 minute epic ‘W.orld W.ar W.orries’ (what is Gerner’s fascination with full stops?) features a howling electronic atmosphere behind country-flecked rock and congas. It seems that the five-year sojourn in screen composition has had an impact on the sound on VietNam, turning what were once quite traditional love letters to classic rock into electro-blues with sampled snippets and the intimate throes of ambient synth.
an A.merican D.ream is an album that provides a variation on a theme. Gerner’s synth experience shines through, ensuring that the music is still innovative and isn’t bogged down too much by his spiel, but VietNam undoubtedly have a defined mission statement, with each cut delivering a burning message from Gerner’s mind. He’s obviously got a few gripes with the way things are run around here, and that’s fine – protest music has always been at the forefront of innovation – it’s just a shame that there’s minimal conviction to his words. He’s got plenty to say, and he seems angry, but too apathetic to do anything, sort of meandering forth encumbered by drugs and alcohol and other vices. There’s cautious, gradual evolution in the music, and it would be interesting to see where that goes, but we may never get that third record. This album doesn’t pack enough punches to provoke or demand a rebuttal, and given the length of VietNam’s hibernation after their debut, they may head straight back there if there’s no impetus to keep them in the spotlight.