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November 23, 2009

Filed under: music»artists»thao

Review: Know Better Learn Faster

"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.

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