Album Review: A Man Alive by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
Excellent, Based on 10 Critics
Paste Magazine - 94 Based on rating 9.4/10
The harrowing blues guitar and kick drum at the start of album opener “Astonished Man” hint that A Man Alive—the fourth full-length album from San Francisco’s Thao & The Get Down Stay Down—won’t be a far cry from frontwoman Thao Nguyen’s (Thao) fantastic indie folk-rooted discography. But Thao and producer Merrill Garbus (of Oakland’s tUnE-yArDs) shatter that notion in 30 seconds when the track takes an electronic turn, before a tambourine comes in, followed by loops and a larger conglomerate of sounds than we’ve ever heard on a Thao album. Gone are the John Congleton-produced horn arrangements and blues piano of Thao’s excellent previous release, We The Common.
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down have returned with A Man Alive, a brilliant and cohesive album that surpasses expectation. It's an elaborate showcase of musical talent and diversity; styles are blended between fractured beats and uninhibited vocals, while elements of tension and release are used strongly to toy with listeners' emotions. Unorthodox song structures make every song on A Man Alive unpredictable: subterranean bass pulsates through "Astonished Man," while the album's highlight track, "Nobody Dies," features screaming, distorted vocals from Thao.
Over the course of four albums, Thao Nguyen has been on a mission to get down more than stay down. From her winsome 2008 debut onward, twee has given way to twitch, her formative folksiness gradually overpowered by funk. And with that shift, her lyrical focus has turned less contemplative and more communal, with her 2013 album, We the Common, inspired by her advocacy work for imprisoned women in California.
Thao Nguyen rarely meets an idea she doesn’t like. Over the past decade the San Francisco-based musician has dabbled in folk, bedroom beats and chamber pop, and collaborated with everyone from the Portland Cello Project to Merrill Garbus, AKA gonzo multi-instrumentalist Tune-Yards. Garbus is handed production duties on A Man Alive, Nguyen and her band the Get Down Stay Down’s sixth album, which might be her most idea-stuffed yet: surf rock riffs, tin-can percussion, hip-hop loops and violent stabs of industrial noise are some of the many sounds jostling for supremacy within its 12 tracks.
Having constructed prior albums with the likes of Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Camera Obscura) and John Congleton (St. Vincent, FFS), bandleader Thao Nguyen enlisted longtime side project collaborator Merrill Garbus to produce her band's fourth LP, A Man Alive. A match that sounds as good on the final product as it does on paper, Garbus brings the musical moxie associated with her tUnE-yArDs outfit and reinforces that same quality in Thao & the Get Down Stay Down for an especially muscular outing.
Over the past decade, Thao Nguyen has been loyally releasing a pleasant blend of folk and indie rock in the San Francisco area. Backed by bassist-keyboardist Adam Thompson, guitarist Frank Stewart, and drummer Willis Thompson, she took up the moniker Thao & the Get Down Stay Down to release five albums. The most recent of that collection, 2013’s We The Common, dragged Nguyen into the edge of a spotlight.
It took me a few listens to A Man Alive to really get Thao Nguyen’s vibe. There’s something wonderfully off-kilter about her songwriting, which is solidly in the indie rock genre, but also includes heavy influences from hip-hop beats and an idiosyncratic use of sparse arrangements. These idiosyncrasies give her music a unique flavor that isn’t necessarily immediately accessible.
Welcome to the dark underbelly of the pretty unfair industry cycle that shoves Radiohead and Queen Bey and Views and that Apple Music independent contractor Chance the Rapper down our collective throats. You can’t really engage with music in 2016 without knowing about those records, but now that the dust has settled, the SPIN staff is throwing some shine to seven very good-to-amazing records that deserve more attention than they’ve received. Quick, get familiar before the next Event Release drops.
There's some people that have an incredible talent for linguistic bow-tieing in respect to emotional turmoil – those who can take the concept of despair that sits at the pit of your colon and pack all that density into a handful of syllables. I don't mean the musicians often held up as the great poet-lyricists of our time, I mean more a handful of mid-noughties indie artists whose pop sensibilities have led them to be hugely economical in their observations of modern life. I think OK Go, who are an objectively mediocre band that I adore due to their entire disregard of the embarrassment of joy, are highly underrated in this respect – their line "mediocre people do exceptional things all the time" having a duplicity and beauty that I find breathtaking.
After a decade or so scrapping away on the US indie folk scene, Thao Nguyen of Thao and The Get Down Stay Down seems like a songwriter who has frequently been patted on the head and damned by faint praise. New work A Man Alive deserves more recognition than that. It’s not that there has much been much to dislike about her mix of rootsy Virginia twang with sun-kissed 60s melodies and pointed college rock edges on her three previous albums, it just never really stood up above the parapet.