Years ago I stumbled across a fantastic debut record, “Like the Linen” (2005), by a girl named Thao Nguyen, a little ball of energy with a quirky off-key voice, gifted with a songwriting ability that musicians with storied careers wished they had. The first cut that caught my ear was “What About”, which isn’t too different than the sound of some of upbeat fluttery folk-rock on her new incarnation’s third album, “We The Common”. “What About” is one of those tunes I like to call a hobo-song, with that train-riding groove, rambling with unlimited potential. This particular song was even topped off with the nimblest of fingers adding jolts of jazz guitar flourish. But it’s the lyrics that sold me.
Take a look at these marvelous verses and you’ll see why I was interested enough to pop off and e-mail to Thao to say as much: “And all the popular girls they stare / At the hundred and odd pounds I bear / So what about me? / Me on top of you / All soft in your ear / Time tested radio tunes / Hey, hey man with the ramblin’ machine / Steady in the place of your memory / On and on and on to stay / Where they don’t duck-and-roll at the crash of your name / I will grant you a cameo, baby / With the sound of a stage and the sway of a lady.” Or try her song “Tallymarks”: “My old man made tracks / And I did too, but I came back / So don’t explain love to me / Love is not why we leave / It is real-life dreams / Make-believe people / You can’t build cathedrals out of finger-steeples / We drop tears like tallymarks … / I think I might miss you enough to say so.” Or try out this majestic piece of lyricism from “Hills”: “Well, I stole his name off the old army flight-suit, he wore in the war, when he thought he was fighting you / And I swing high, swing low / Talking to god to see if he knows … / That I’m a superhero / I will swing you away / We will tap the heels of our bare feet / To our hearts we swagger and sway.” In short, “Like the Linen” was one of the best unsung debuts around, and as is often the case, an artist becomes known for other things, well after they’ve already shown shades of greatness.
So, it’s good to hear Thao and her friends of the Get Down Stay Down are finding new inspiration after their sophomore release, “We Brave Bee Stings and All”. You can hear the band maturing, keeping the essence of what makes Thao such a good musician, and adding a bigger, more complex sound to her songwriting. “City” is a rock song that mixes guttural guitar, distorted and overlapped vocals, with an anthemic chorus. There are brassy jazz elements that mix into an indie sensibility on “We Don’t Call”. There’s a cleaner sound to the band, and Thao’s vocals are manipulated just right, as if she’s singing through a megaphone. I’m guessing that’s the idea of producer John Congleton — and it clearly pays off. One of the best songs on the record, “Feeling Kind”, adds a wonderful piano riff and horns to a jangly beat, creating a real hybrid-rock Orleans-style swing. The vocal harmonies on “Day Long” are a nice addition to the Thao arsenal, as is the playful chaos of “Move”, a song that disintegrates into a wailing and horns blaring as it branches into floating melodies. “Clouds For Brains” is an interesting dirge, a slowdown that allows Thao to draw out her lyrics atop dissonant guitar, cello, and languid percussion. You can hear the new record at NPR: First Listen. The release will be out Feb. 5 in North America and the 4th, both via Ribbon Music. — David D. Robbins Jr.