Album review: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down reconvene over unconventional ground on ‘We the Common’
Thao Nguyen formed the basis of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down around 2004 with drummer Willis Thompson in Falls Church, Va., later picking up (and, since then, dropping) musicians Adam Thompson and Frank Stewart and relocating the duo’s efforts to San Francisco.
Nguyen has cited Lilith Fair as an influence on her early career, and that folksy, singer-songwriter character — simple chords, baby-soft voices cooing Oberlin-ish poetical lyrics such as “baffle a skeleton dry” — is most detectable on songs like “We the Common (for Valerie Bolden)” and “Kindness Be Conceived,” featuring Joanna Newsom.
Since releasing her first album, 2008′s “We Brave Bee Stings and All,” Nguyen has given herself over to the thrill of experimentation. She’s still an admirer of uncomplicated chords and moody tones, but presents them in an unorthodox way that’s less of a precise arrangement than it is a messy assemblage. This is neo-tribal indie folk, I guess the Internet is calling it, and it’s only been expanded from 2011′s partnership with Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (“Thao and Mirah”).
“We the Common” is an unpredictable, dangerously catchy album that’s caused me to wake up with one song or another in my head for more than a week now. It swings, it dives, it scratches all of these funny little itches that come out of nowhere. I truly cannot get these songs out of my mind, which is understandable on one hand because I’m the one reviewing it, but also they’re really good songs.
Wily and brazen, they careen all over the map (if one was written in the first place), and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down employ barrages of horns, chimes, and backing tracks that sometimes do little but breathe into vintage microphones. “City” starts off like an early Red Hot Chili Peppers B-side, and the psychedelic guitar screech in “Move” leads the ear in one direction while it’s follow-up, “Clouds For Brains,” is an unsettling dirge as seductive as the witch beckoning you into her candy house.
I’m particularly hooked on “The Feeling Kind,” a getting-ready-for-a-night-out kind of track that, with its thumping beat and jazzy horns, sounds like a New Orleans funeral march up Sesame Street. “Human Heart” is another sax-heavy track with retro influences that tip just so into “Age of Ice,” a closer with a blues guitar riff lazing behind the verse.
The vocals do sometimes over rely on the flattened distortion that’s steadily becoming the Auto-Tune of the indie-music world. This effect paired with atonal yelps and untuned strings brings to mind (accurately or not) the cringe-worthy trope of a video populated by bokeh-obscured white girls wearing feathered headdresses. However, more of “We the Common” resists this unwelcome image than not, and the album is best when it gets out of its head and back to a libertine disregard for convention.
Anyone can tell you that being cool is all about not caring whether or not you are, and when Thao & The Get Down Stay Down keeps their approach to their material cavalier, the result is a devastating left hook wrapped in a velvet glove; injuries forgiven, the memory lingering, and something to tell your friends about.