Thao with the Get Down Stay Down
We the Common
Feb 06, 2013 Issue #44 - Best of 2012 - Grimes
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.
Nguyen's rich, harmonic voice is up to the task, carrying with it the weight of more years than she's lived, and effortlessly mumbling and swinging around these compositions. She's got a great mellow delivery, paired nicely with some singular guitar/banjo playing—often a rather percussive approach, other times revealing more classic blues-based chops.
Stylistically, Nguyen wavers, her off-kilter pop bringing to mind Tom Waits (and his longtime guitarist buddy Marc Ribot), collaborators like Laura Viers, contemporary iconoclasts like Fiona Apple (Nguyen has a similar timbre and command over her vocal dynamics), or even the Stones at their more ramshackle moments.
Indie producer du jour John Congleton focuses that loose and understated approach with snappy live production and a great bag of tricks—room mics galore, earbud-friendly panning, and dynamic vocal effects. The horn production should get a specific call-out for being perfectly tight and mellow. Congleton's at the top of his game these days-nice timing that Nguyen is as well.
"We the Common (for Valerie Bolden)" opens up with all kinds of swagger. Its namesake is an inmate at a women's prison whom Nguyen met through nonprofit advocacy work, and with the song, she channels some tragedy and frustration into a wicked wordless chorus hook. "City" follows up with some of Nguyen's great guitar work, all plucky and cyclical percussive fingerpicks, paired with a mechanically funky beat, xylophone accents, and hooks aplenty for some killer party pop.
"Holy Roller" was the first tune Nguyen wrote for this outing, and in a way, it sums up most of the tunes presented here: personal lyrics, swinging rhythms, easy and eminently catchy melodies, modest but textured arrangements, and an all-around good-times, life's-all-right vibe. Big ol' choruses that go down easy. (www.thaoandthegetdownstaydown.com)
Author rating: 7/10
Average reader rating: 7/10