On first listen, the social and political ideas underlying VietNam's new album, An A.merican D.ream, feel like a time capsule from 2007. President Obama's first inauguration, celebrated in the one-verse paean "1.20.09," is a landmark event, but it's history — arguably the basis for a new reality. However, the day the Scene checks in with VietNam's Michael Gerner brings a strong reminder of the glacial pace of justice. The Supreme Court hears two cases focused on same-sex couples' right to marry. Our news feed turns into a sea of pink equal signs in support. A decision is not expected until June.
Despite the challenges we have met in the past six years, political discourse still creeps along, while the connection between our leaders' decisions and their effect on everyday lives comes slowly into focus. The result: more open questions about the viability of "the American Dream" as an equal-opportunity institution, which Gerner sees as a step in the right direction.
"I don't have a lot of faith in a lot of things," Gerner says, but "I like the fact that we talk about [marriage equality] at least, instead of putting it on a shelf, in the shadows."
An A.merican D.ream is an unsettled album befitting transitional times, and Gerner is well suited to be our guide. He grew up on military bases, and even as an adult, he rarely stays in one place for long, cultivating a critical perspective difficult to maintain as a long-term community member. That partially explains why VietNam went on hiatus in 2008, just as the wave of critical and commercial success began to crest behind their 2007 self-titled full-length debut.
Gerner made his way to the West Coast with help from friend Jonathan Toubin — the popular New York-based soul and rock 'n' roll DJ known for his traveling Soul Clap and Dance-Off competition — and soon began exploring analog synthesizers under the nebulous moniker D.A., an abbreviation whose referents changed with every project. After releasing an album and scoring some experimental films by Matt Anderson, Gerner joined up as field sound recordist for Anderson's documentary Fall and Winter, an examination of current global climate and humanitarian crises, which screens 5:45 p.m. Monday and 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Nashville Film Festival.
Once that project wrapped, Gerner headed back to Brooklyn, where he and Lefty Maynard began to whittle hundreds of Gerner's one-mic demos down into what would become An A.merican D.ream. In a Basement Tapes atmosphere, they shaped the sound of the new record over six months of rehearsal with a constantly evolving lineup. "It was kind of a family band, you know?" says Gerner. "It's also my 30th record, so I really wanted it to be with all my friends. I always wanted to put out a double record; that was the icing on the cake."
The resulting dream sequence careens sideways, unnerving vignettes emerging from a fog of voices and shifting Moog drones. Inspired by Curtis Mayfield and Sun Ra, the new VietNam connects its sun-damaged pop to its African roots, taking parts that might seem simple on their own and arranging them in complex, warped patterns, a backdrop amplifying Gerner's meditations and prophecies like a mirror behind a lamp.
For now, Gerner will return to his version of the American Dream: touring, writing music, visiting with the ever-expanding network he's created across the country. The group is already a few songs deep into a follow-up, which Gerner plans to infuse with a lighter mood.
"You kind of have to go through the darkness, and then you're ready to accept the good things by the end," Gerner says. "You gotta be a realist-optimist, you know?"