Album Review: Know Better Learn Faster by Thao With The Get Down Stay Down
Great, Based on 7 Critics
Paste Magazine - 86 Based on rating 8.6/10
Watch Paste's video review of this album here.--The best revengeIt begins with a threat, bare and ominous. “If this is how you want it / Okay, okay,” Thao Nguyen and a seething chorus of friends howl on the first track of her third LP, just before the song bursts into a cacophony of righteous hand claps bearing along the line’s portentous fury. Repeated four times, each time it becomes more clear: This girl is pissed.
In early 2009 the venerable Kill Rock Stars was once again rewarded for good taste when Thao Nguyen’s much lauded second album became the label’s best seller of 2008. If that album, We Brave Bee Stings and All, was taking a playful distance on growing pains to adulthood, Thao & Co.‘s third album, Know Better, Learn Faster, is a creative, catchy, and often ironically emotive reflection on the timeless theme “love hurts.” It’s all in the title, as Thao explains on the Kill Rock Stars page for the album: “The album is named Know Better Learn Faster because you can’t. By the time you realize you should, it’s too late.” The tragedy of human love.
Sure, there's a party going down on the cover of Know Better Learn Faster. But the most telling detail in that picture is how Thao Nguyen is peeking out from under her blindfold, checking out the damage she's done. Because as raucous as this album can sound, this is a set of songs very much about the aftermath of mistakes, and Nguyen spends a good chunk of the album mired in regret.
Despite the first-person plural pronoun in the title of Thao Nguyen's debut album, We Brave Bee Stings and All played like a very personal, at times even lonely, coming-of-age story. That album was lively but not light, an especially exuberant celebration of newfound musical possibilities. By contrast, her follow-up is the post-party comedown, a collection of hard-learned lessons about love, sex, and human connection.
Like Cat Power, to whom she's often compared, San Franciscan songbird Thao Nguyen evolved over time from indie folk gal-with-guitar and sparse (if any) accompaniment to full-blown bandleader. On her second outing for Kill Rock Stars -- whose former bossman Slim Moon was so taken with Nguyen's talent he's become her manager -- Nguyen pretty much picks up where she left off last time in terms of presenting a sound that fully incorporates her band, the Get Down Stay Down, but this is the first album to be credited to the collective rather than just Nguyen, which is probably not insignificant. Something else that hasn't changed is Nguyen's ability to wring peppy tunes from emotional angst.
Know Better Learn Faster, the sophomore LP from Thao With The Get Down Stay Down, begins with the lively chant of "If this is how you want it, OK, OK" with clapping behind it. It's a perfect intro to this break-up record: a warning to watch out because what's coming next is not going to be pretty. Much of the music itself actually is pretty, with bright guitars and multi-voiced choruses with help from tUnE-YarDs and singer/songwriter Laura Veirs, but with that comes bandleader Thao Nguyen's melancholy lyrics about heartbreak and neglect.
Chances are that Thao Nguyen stutters and mumbles her way through real life just like the rest of us. Hand her a guitar or a banjo, however, and she’s a butterfly collector of the emotions, seizing the most colourful, ragged scraps as they flutter past and deftly skewering them for posterity with the kind of sharp, glinting insights that most lesser mortals only come up with half an hour too late. We Brave Bee Stings and All, from 2008, was a hymn to taking those first big gulps of air outside home in your early twenties, with the interstate bus and long-distance romance widening horizons beyond the backyards of suburban Virginia and her Vietnamese mother’s laundrette.