Release Date: Feb 5, 2013
Record label: Ribbon Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Thao Nguyen's solo work was put on hold for much of 2011 when she teamed up with indie songstress Mirah to write and record Thao & Mirah, a collaborative, fun effort that married their styles of music-making. Equipped with a new sense of introspective songwriting, Nguyen releases her third album, We the Common, her first in four years. This is Nguyen's strongest work yet, with the aforementioned songwriting taking a leap forward, while gradually perfecting her melting pot sound of country, folk and pop.
The other day my dad asked me what Thao Nguyen was like. Despite the cynically accepted perjorative definition, I felt the most fitting word was “cute.” Thao and her backing band The Get Down Stay Down are cute in the complimentary sense—their music is sweet pop that’s easy to swallow with just enough weirdness to demand an initial chew. We The Common is also cute.
Singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen has spent most of her 20s on the road thanks to her work with her band, the Get Down Stay Down, and a duet LP with Mirah. Before recording her fourth album, she took time away from music and settled in San Francisco, where she's stabilized her personal life and advocated for incarcerated women in the California prison system. Those experiences furnished Nguyen with a new set of themes: justice, truth and especially community.
When Thao Nguyen shout-sings, “Everybody knows I’ve got a brand new way,” she can do so in full confidence that everybody really does know because her latest album We the Common proves it. While everything that has made Thao’s handiwork so endearing and compelling is still on full display on We the Common, nobody who’s already familiar with her and the Get Down Stay Down can doubt there’s a brand new way about this batch of songs, both thematically and musically speaking. Although she may be most often described as a singer-songwriter type, Thao has come more and more out of her shell with each successive album, as her focus on seemingly autobiographical vignettes has given way to an interest in more universal stories expressed in an embracing, good-humored tone that’s better suited for a raucous block party than a coffee house.
T&TGDSD's musical output has always been colorful and astute, and the brilliantly crisp production here brightens the group's already varied musical palette. The slinky guitar and up-front horns of "We Don't Call" feel natural blending into the front-porch banjo stomp of "Kindness Be Conceived," a spare duet that pairs Thao's smoky vocals with special guest Joanna Newsom's creaky croon. "Clouds for Brains" finds eerie strings, atmospheric textures, and looming percussion perfectly backing Nguyen's vocals at their most Cat Power-borrowing.
When we are being bombarded with new music left and right, it’s easy to become jaded—to borrow from Arcade Fire: “kids with their arms folded tight.” Breaking through that wall of attitude and self-consciousness just to get people swaying to the beat is a daunting task, but Thao Nguyen is up for the challenge. We The Common, the fifth LP offering from San Francisco’s Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, offers us a killer collection of infectious beats, bouncy melodies and smart lyrics that you can’t help but move to. If you don’t believe me, just cue up “We Don’t Call” and press play.
There are so many promising signs surrounding Thao and The Get Down Stay Down’s fourth full-length even before you actually have a listen to the record in full. It’s produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen), it features a duet with Joanna Newsom, and the first song released to promote it, ‘Holy Rollers’, was a fine folk-rock stomper.
Creative people have long been in pursuit of that ephemeral quantity they call "life experience"; this is why we have things like gap years, the Peace Corps, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. It's also the fuel driving We the Common, the fourth album from spirited folk-popper Thao Nguyen. Including her three records with the Get Down Stay Down and a 2011 collaboration with Mirah, the prolific Nguyen has been involved in so many projects that she's spent most of her 20s on the road.
Thao Nguyen and her backing band return with something bigger and better here, after Nguyen spent a year settling down and building a non-transient life in San Francisco. The album title speaks directly to her experience of becoming part of a community and doing her part. Also implied is an artistic leap beyond that geographic or cultural adjustment, from more stylistic pursuits to introspective, life-revealing stuff.
Thao Nguyen lives in San Francisco – and she sounds like it. There’s something sunkissed and wholesome about her third record that makes you think she probably spends a lot of time eating soya and vegan food and listening to Joanna Newsom records, so it’s no surprise when Newsom herself turns up to duet on ‘Kindness Be Conceived’. Her best tunes, like ‘Holy Roller’ and the title track, dedicated to a woman she met while volunteering at a prison, could be Regina Spektor at her most spritely.
The folk-tinged pop experiments of Thao Nguyen could not have come at a better time. In this post-Mumford and-Marling world, something is sorely missing from the glut of all things folk. On We the Common, Nguyen’s fourth album with The Get Down Stay Down, this much-needed spark comes in channeling an array of genres to create a raucous, rolling good time.
After spending the lion's share of her 20s pumping out and promoting albums, Thao Nguyen tethered herself to San Francisco for four years. We the Common, her third release with the Get Down Stay Down, finally reflects that sense of place, stretching nuance and bringing the only brand of folk that metropolitan California allows: one laden with pop hooks. Longtime Cali girl Joanna Newsom joins her on "Kindness Be Conceived," blending the fragility of her singing with Nguyen's demure alto in a tête-à-tête duet.
Thao Nguyen has spent much of her recording career with the shifting line-ups of The Get Down Stay Down growing up in (relative) public. From the first tentative steps into adulthood and the broadening of horizons chronicled in ‘We Brave Bee Stings And All’, to the stumbles and scraped knees that informed ‘Know Better Learn Faster’, she has shown no fear or hesitation in letting the listener know each of her doubts and hesitations as she fumbles to make a place for herself in the world. It’s a sensation that even the most well-adjusted among us can relate to and her jaunty, folk-pop anthems to uncertainty have won her no shortage of friends or admirers.