JEFF COLIN SPECTOR|
As the curtain opens, the drums and bass begin insistently.
The guitar is hard, but spare. Out of the blue comes an angelic voice, sprinkling
unheard-of lyrics across the caustic musical landscape. Asian pentatonic scales
float in from nowhere. The whole is intelligent and sensuous, with pounding rhythms,
hard-driving guitars, ethereal vocals, and disconcerting images.
has its roots somewhere in rock and roll, but it has sent its branches into another
world, mixing in touches of electronica, Vietnamese music, and a bit of love-among-the-ashes.
The project was the brainchild of Neal Barnard, whose previous recordings
were the post-new wave Pop Maru, followed by Quartet, an adventurous
composition for electric band and string quartet. The Verdun compositions recall
Pop Maru’s spare edginess, but add a new layer of beauty with vocals from Martha
Roebuck and Ngọc Hoàng.
Martha’s vocals are serene, light, and sometimes
unsettling, very different from her more straight-ahead work with Falstaff. Ngọc,
who came from Viet Nam in 1987, showed her vocal and songwriting range on her
own debut CD and adds her delicate touch to Nightfall, April, and Dream of the
Black Horse. Drummer Mike Stetina drives complex and changing rhythms, seamlessly
diving into 7/4, 11/4, and other meters most bands would not attempt.
Gray’s soprano sax is the banshee’s wail on the quirky Stand By Your Man and the
quiet melody in Page of Swords. Bob played guitar and sax with Pop Maru before
jumping into the world of jazz, only to be dragged back again. Việt Nguyễn
plays an electronic version of the đàn tranh, the Vietnamese instrument that
closely resembles a Japanese koto, as well as the traditional đàn bầu,
đàn cò, and đàn nguyệt. Carter Melin’s cello and Sam Dorsey’s
guitar add a special dimension to the beautiful Song to a Sparrow, and Jon Best’s
bass anchors the music.
The band’s signature song, “Dream of a Black Horse,“
draws on an ancient Vietnamese folk song, Ly Ngua O (“the black horse.”) The original
tells of a bridegroom readying his horse and carriage to bring his bride home.
In Verdun’s “Dream,” the black horse rebels, casting off bit and bell, and bringing
his own love home. One senses he never got there.
Just as opera lives in
Italian and tragedy in Portuguese, Verdun’s lyrics are at home somewhere between
New York, Saigon, and a battleground east of Paris. English blends into Vietnamese,
a tonal language in which pitch changes impart meaning beyond the vowels and consonants,
along with the occasional bit of gratuitous French.
In a time when truly
new and innovative music is sometimes hard to come by, Verdun is a breath of fresh
air, except that it’s sometimes more like a breath from the fiery tail pipe of
a tank rolling over war-torn hillsides. There’s enough music here to spark a half-dozen
new genres, and, if this is the band’s maiden voyage, I can’t wait to see what’s
yet to come.