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"Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974"

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cover imageIn characteristic Sublime Frequencies fashion, Mark Gergis' latest compilation documents a truly unique and flourishing scene that very few people even knew existed.  It is hard to think of many positive things that came out of the Vietnam War but the free exchange of music and equipment between American soldiers and Saigon's hipper young musicians certainly resulted in some raucous and inventive music that could not have otherwise existed.  Punk would have had no reason to happen if rock music had been this wild in the Western world in the mid-'70s.

Sublime Frequencies

This is the sort of album that could only have come out on Sublime Frequencies for many reasons, but the main one is that compiling such a retrospective seemed like such a complicated and near-hopeless task: these songs were essentially wiped from the earth after Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975.  Some musicians were tipped-off by friends and were able to flee the country to continue their careers as nomadic rock n’ roll refugees, but the ones that stayed behind were forced to destroy any evidence of Western culture to avoid being dispatched to reform camps.  Further complicating the endeavor was the fact that Southeast Asian cultures have a tendency to view pop music as a disposable and very of-the-moment thing.  Even if this music had remained available, most Vietnamese music fans wouldn’t care.  They are interested in what is happening now, not forty years ago ("fetishism of the old is left to those rare creatures obsessed enough to take on the task").   As if that wasn't enough, any new interpretations are viewed as supplanting the original versions, making Internet searches an exasperating process.  Consequently, original recordings from that short-lived era are staggeringly difficult to come by in 2010, even without a language barrier standing in the way.  Fortunately, Gergis was aided in his efforts by a California record collector named Rick Foust who had presciently snapped up a lot of these recordings when they were available in Vietnamese-owned shops in the '80s.

Gergis definitely tried to give a broad overview of the scene, which necessarily means that listeners will probably not fall in love with every single song.  On the flip side, however, it is hard to imagine anyone who loves music not being floored by at least one or two pieces here.  I personally had a hard time embracing some of the more high-pitched vocal performances, like Bich Loan's opening "Tinh Yêu Tuyêt Vòi."  Fortunately, he is backed by CBC Band, whom the liner notes describe (quite rightly) as "teenage acid rock of the highest order."  Acid rock is generally not a favorite genre of mine, but these teens were smart enough to replace its more plodding and self-indulgent aspects with infectious youthful exuberance and a rumbling, funky low-end.  It is impossible not to love a band that is so obviously intent on tearing it up.  Notably, even though Rolling Stone proclaimed them "The Best Band in the Orient" at one point, they only ever recorded two songs (for the soundtrack to a comedy, no less).  The band, who now live in Texas, were absolutely stunned that Mark found those songs (even they themselves hadn’t heard them in nearly four decades).

The most essential piece on the album, however, is probably Bang Chan's incendiary "Nhurng Dóm Mat Hoa Châu," which features one of the absolute best rhythm sections that I have ever heard.  The groove is so perfect that the rest of the band could have been playing literally anything and it wouldn't matter, but everything else is great too: wild organ solos, smoky saxophones, fuzzed out guitars, and cool sultry vocals.  It must have been a bit disorienting for some G.I.s to come back home and hear the comparatively neutered rock being played on radios in the US after experiencing such funky, frenzied abandon abroad.  That said, there are a number of other stunning pieces strewn throughout the album that take wildly different stylistic paths, such as Lê Thu's languidly melancholy "Sao Bien," the mutant Motown girl-group pop of Thai Thanh, and Thanh Lan's suavely cosmopolitan "Hoài Thu."

As with just about all Sublime Frequencies releases, the sound quality is quite raw.  It actually works quite effectively in this case, as this music deserves to be heard as it was experienced in those steamy Saigon clubs forty years ago: gritty and unfiltered.  Most of these artists rely heavily on sinuously funky bass lines and overdriven and wah-wah'ed guitars, both of which only sound more visceral with increased volume and in-the-red recording quality.  In general, I am not a fan a foreign pastiches of American rock, but the sheer enthusiasm and passion of these musicians transcended my apathy beautifully and instantly.  Saigon Rock & Soul captures a singular cultural nexus: the thrill of discovering rock and roll colliding with the urgency of living in the midst of a war zone.  This is some of the most thrillingly alive music that will be released this year (and one impressive feat of musicology to boot).

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Last Updated on Sunday, 15 August 2010 21:53  


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