On Friday, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down played a show at the Sonic Boom near our apartment in Seattle. The shop was completely packed, which was a pleasant surprise. Seeing a Thao Nguyen concert, even in abbreviated record-shop form, is always a treat: live, she performs with a kind of abandon that privileges energy over accuracy, and you really get the full impact of her voice, which can veer from a mutter to a howl in the space of a beat.
The best parts of her new album, We the Common, are the songs that let that voice greedily cover its full range. The titular opening number is a stompy rallying cry that builds from a choppy banjo riff until it soars into a wordless chorus. "The Day Long" showcases the quieter, spookier side of the album, but is no less effective: it has a kind of marching melancholy that's weirdly danceable. In between, there's the jaunty swing of "The Feeling Kind," which wouldn't be out of place on the band's first album.
The production remains top-notch: they seem to have picked up a few tricks from Thao's collaboration with Mirah (especially the Tune-Yards'-produced "Eleven"), but applied it to her particular brand of indie rock. "Every Body" mixes a spiky ukelele with synth bass, and while it may just be that I've been listening to a lot of Stop Making Sense lately, I hear a touch of the Talking Heads in the punchy, over-distorted "City," probably in the call-and-response that closes it out. It's becoming one of my favorite songs on the CD, along with the boozy wall of sound that is "Age of Ice."
Fittingly, the most skippable tracks involve times when Nguyen's voice is either kept to a single mood (the dirge-like "Clouds for Brains") or, more bizarrely, paired with Joanna Newsom on "Kindness Be Conceived." Newsom's folky, child-like voice is an acquired taste I've never found appealing, and it tips an otherwise inoffensive song over into tweeness.
We the Common isn't as dark as Know Better, Learn Faster, but it's still not what I'd call cheerful. It's probably not as political as the title sounds, either, although with her elliptical lyrics that's hard to know for sure. But it remains tightly-crafted songwriting wrapped around a unique, powerful voice. I think it's a must-listen, but don't take my word for it: check out their short performance on KEXP and see what you think.
Clearly shot on a total shoestring, but no less adorable for it.
"Wry melancholy" is perhaps the best I can do when describing "We Brave Bee Stings And All," the first album from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. "Did he hurt you/In a new way?" she asked in one song, as if she was too bored for a romantic crash-and-burn that didn't at least offer a little novelty. I liked it quite a bit.
The group's new record, "Know Better Learn Faster," marks not so much a shift in attitude as a refinement: the humor is drier, the victories more hollow, the outlook even bleaker. The title refers to the two things you want to do as a relationship begins to come unmoored. The joke is that they're impossible. This is, according to interviews with Thao, a break-up record, but it's one that can't quite take its own melodrama seriously: from the first track ("The Clap"), in which the lyrics "If this is how you want it/Okay, okay" are transformed from a dirge into a foot-stomping rallying cry, to the last ("Easy," introduced with a muttered admonition that "sad people dance, too").
A big draw has always been singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen's voice. It's soulful at the low end, reaching into a wounded yelp during crescendos. But lots of singers have good voices. Part of what sets Nguyen apart for me is less in the tone and more in the relationship between her melodies and the lyrics. She's good with ambiguous pauses: in "When We Swam," she adds a hungry emphasis to the line "Oh, bring your hips to me" that leaves the listener momentarily unsure why she wants said hips, or her interest in the person attached to them. Likewise, the way she sings "We made it/Won't we save it?/And I fixed it!/What you hated" betrays a mixture of petulance, anger, and surprise at her own admission.
Other standout numbers include the title song, with its soaring violin accompaniment, and the self-destructive "Body," which builds repeatedly to a raging call-and-response. It's not all roses, of course: "Oh. No." lapses into mopiness, as does "But What of the Strangers." They're also, tellingly I think, the two songs that find Nguyen alone with a guitar instead of pulling energy in from the rest of the band. But these kinds of misfires are really minor symptoms of a group that's stretching out and becoming comfortable with their sound. And what a sound it is: one that looks for the grim punchline behind a broken heart.