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Album review: Vi Tran Band - American Heroine





Album review: Vi Tran Band - American Heroine

 
You have a dream. You work hard for it. You make many sacrifices. You find friends who share your passion. You create something. You hope for success through hard work and determination and talent. It’s a classic storyline—America loves when good things happen to people who work hard, and Vietmanese-born Vi Tran is second to none in personifying that American dream. He’s an actor, a musician, a tireless voice for and supporter of the arts community, and a pretty decent card player to boot. Above all, his singing, songwriting, and storytelling have been heard around Kansas City through his shows with Hot Caution, a lively cover band featuring a rotating lineup, and his 2010 EP Goodbye, Summer. Hearing him at Czar Bar or the Kill Devil Club or any of the other venues he plays, however, cannot properly prepare you for what you will hear with his debut full-length release, American Heroine. It’s an album that is less about singles and radio play and more about musical theatre and song craft. Tran’s professional Facebook page tells of the literary inspiration he called upon to help create Heroine’s sonic grandeur; it’s a projection that is tied in with the album artwork, which hearkens to the golden days of Hollywood and all the magic that art was and is capable of.
 
He is fond of saying that he is “part wheat fields, part sea salt,” and this is his Wheat album, a tribute to authors such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald—authors whose protagonists have dealt with struggles and challenges that mirror those of Tran’s family as they struggled with the challenges of being refugees in a new world. Those stories have been with him for the better part of a decade, waiting for the right time to be shared. When he felt that time had come, and he had amassed the strongest overall support staff possible, he threw himself completely into the project with the intent to make American Heroine look and sound like a well-worn paperback novel.
 
What you get, and what is instantly discernable from the opening typewriter solo in the intro, is an album that is less indie and more musical theatre—less “make it radio-ready” and more “knock ‘em dead, kid.” The earnestness and sincerity in his vocals grabs the listener from the first measures of the title track, where the aforementioned literary tribute takes on a literal tone as the protagonist leans on his inspirations for storytelling (“You are the most precious pearl / You are an archetypal Steinbeckian girl … If this were Hemingway, you’d meet your end in a hospital tent / And I’d watch it happening, wouldn’t be able to do a thing”).
 
“The Charmer” finds Tran trying to woo his way into a lucky lady’s heart in spite of his growing sense of self-doubt and timidity; as Ben Byard’s bass nimbly skips and encircles the twosome as they eventually connect … or do they? The next two tracks, “All the Time in the World” and “Goodbye, Summer” are revisited from his earlier EP, and the three years that have passed since their initial appearance have been good to the songs as they (along with the rest of American Heroine) find added depth and strength from the added instrumentation, along with the benefit of more life experience which Tran’s vocals bring forth with focus and solidity. “The Killing Rain” brings the strings to the fore, as Christine Grossman, Christine Gross, and Sean Hogge all offer virtuoso performances, matching the fragility of Tran’s lyrics and delivery (“I shake and shudder / crack and break / my leaves, my litter / my small mistakes”) with beautifully delicate skill. To me, this is perhaps the most instrumentally stunning track of all …
 
… which makes it all the more effective as a lead-in to what I think is American Heroine’s tour de force: if this truly was a soundtrack to a Broadway musical, “Waterlily” would surely bring the house down on a nightly basis. You know how it is when you observe someone doing what they do, knowing that they’re at the top of their game, and it’s a beautiful thing to see and/or hear? That’s what “Waterlily” represents to me, as every bit of it—vocals, instruments, performance, and production (brilliantly mastered by Joel Nanos at Element Recording Studios)—is awe-inspiringly on point. It starts gently, but when all the players come in about ninety seconds into the song, it’s pretty much as good as any music moment could possibly get, and that sense of top-level execution continues to the end. Jerod Rivers’ percussion feeds the intensity and energy of the song, and though the vocal collaboration of Tran and Katie Gilchrist can be heard throughout the album, here they simultaneously challenge each other, lean on one another, and lift each other higher and higher. “Waterlily” is simply staggering in its majesty and bravado.
 
And this brings us to the final chapter of this narrative, one with which many of Tran’s legion of admirers may be unfamiliar. He usually keeps “The Code” under wraps (along with “The Killing Rain”) because, in his words, “they aren’t well-suited to noisy bar gigs. They tend to be ignored outside an intimate storytellers’ setting. I knew they'd reach their full potential on the album.” The trumpet and piano of Hermon Mehari and Mark Lowrey respectively lead the way into a tale of a man searching for just the right time—and the right way—to make his feelings known to the object of his desire (“Sometimes it’s easier to shoulder the whole world / Than to muster up the courage to admit that you’re in love”). Tran closes the album by laying his soul bare, leaving no emotion unspoken—and no tale untold.
 
To briefly return to the title track, Tran emotes: “I should have learned my lesson well / From these great literary cautionary tales.” It’s a lesson that he has not only learned well, but one he now teaches the listener—and does so with grace and courage. There’s a commonly used phrase in the world of poker: “all-in,” which is what it’s called when you put every one of your chips at risk. Sometimes it’s an act of desperation, when you’re almost out of the game and you want to take one last shot at a big payoff so you can keep playing … but other times it shows supreme confidence, a sense of invulnerability, when the player is so sure of what he has that he dares anyone to challenge him. Vi Tran knows he’s put everything he has—emotionally, mentally, financially, and every-other-ally you can think of—into his new album …
 
… and I think American Heroine is a winning hand.
 
Vi Tran Band is:
Vi Tran: vocals, guitar, typewriter
Katie Gilchrist: vocals
Sean Hogge: guitar
Jerod Rivers: drums, percussion, lap steel, vocals
Ben Byard: bass, vocals 
 
*****
American Heroine was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Joel Nanos at Element Recording, © 2013 SeaWheat Songs. Album collaborators include Eryn Bates (string arrangements), Mark Lowrey (piano, organ), Hermon Mehari (trumpet), Rachel Gaither (violin), Christine Grossman (viola), and Christine Gross (cello). Album cover art direction, design, and layout by Vi Tran, Eric Lindquist (Lindquist Press), Matthew Naquin, and Mackenzie Goodwin. Photography by Forester Michael.
 
The album will be released on October 8, but you can attend the release party next Friday, October 4 at Kill Devil Club at 7:00 pm. Special guests include Mark Lowrey, David George & A Crooked Mile, and Jessica Paige. Vi Tran Band will be performing with the American Heroine Orchestra. Ticket link.
 
 
--Michael Byars
 

Michael Byars is still chuckling silently to himself over his hidden Beatles reference he snuck in there. He thinks he’s just so damn clever. Good job, Michael. Way to go.

*clap … clap … clap … clap …*

 

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