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V/A - Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974

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Artist: V/A

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

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Nov. 3, 2010

The story goes that it was the Beatles sojourn in Hamburg, playing seven sets a night for sailors in the red light district, that turned them into a top band. This leaves aside the point that they also had to figure out how to write songs, something they probably didn’t do in front of horny tars, but there’s something to be said for the notion that learning how to engage a hard-bitten, disinterested audience will hone a band’s performing skills.

This probably explains why there are so many strong cuts on Saigon Rock & Soul, a collection culled from 1960s and ‘70s-vintage Vietnamese 45s. It’s tempting to attribute the toughness of execution on display here, which you won’t find listening to contemporary Indonesian or Singaporean music, to the sheer volume of work generated by an overheated entertainment circuit set up to distract grunts on leave.

But the U.S. connection probably worked for them in other ways; the back-and-forth travel of American servicemen must have made it a lot easier to get a hold of the same sort of fuzzboxes that the Electric Prunes or Carlos Santana used. Santana, in particular, looms over this set; check the ending of Bich Loan and CBC Band’s “Con Tim Và Nuróc Mat,” which sounds awfully close to that of “Evil Ways,” only rougher. CBC Band also lift one of the Beatles’ most famous lines — “Yeah yeah yeah” — and make it sound like a command rather than a plea on “Tinh Yêu Tuyêt Vòi,” driving the point home with a Blue Cheer-ish guitar solo. In the U.S., jazz influences often made pop music smoother; on Thai Tanh’s “Bùrng Sáng,” an unruly post-bop piano solo turns up the heat behind the singer’s command that she and her soldier boy live it up one more night before he returns to the front. For these singers, the war isn’t something to be protested so much as something you live with.

Not every song has that edge that comes from dancing on the deck as the ship starts to list; Elvis Phuong’s Kho Tàng Cua Chúng Ta” sounds as frothy as, well, a lot of early Beatles as he assures some girl that they’ll be happy even though they’re poor. But even he has his craft down; no one on this record sounds like a dabbler.

Sublime Frequencies adheres to its usual standard on the packaging end of things. It’s hard not to be drawn in by the 12x12 images of young Vietnamese women, one Swinging London chic, the other Woodstock groovy, on the outside of the gatefold, and if Mark Gergis’s notes don’t plunge you as deep into the obsession necessary to make a collection like this as, say, ones by Samy Ben Redjeb, they still do the set and setting justice.

By Bill Meyer

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