Thao cultivates new signature sound(s)

Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down have always produced music which, no matter how pop-infused, remains folk rock marked by subtle grittiness. Their albums We Brave Bee Stings and All and Know Better, Learn Faster are filled with longing and regret, many times masked with upbeat tempos or the catchy twang of a banjo.

And it has always been distinctive, just like Nguyen herself, who defies typical conceptions of folk rock as a young Vietnamese woman who commands the stage with her howling voice and deft stringed instrument playing. But Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s 2013 album, “We the Common,” is an evolution in their music so distinct and powerful, it seems that they have discovered a signature sound. Or as the diversity of musical textures would suggest, signature sounds.

Take the lead track, for example. The more I listen to the first song on the album, “We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)”, the more I am impressed by its duality. It begins as a reminder of just how much Nguyen is influenced by classical folk sounds and her affinity for the banjo. But soon after the basic twangy intro, it transforms into a full-sounding anthem, topped off with a multi-voiced chorus. It switches back to simple folk ballad almost at will until the two seem to morph together.

“City”, the next track on the album, confronts the first song with an almost polar opposite intro-riff, this time marked by the wailing of a heavily distorted guitar. But in the trend established by the opener, the hardened sound of the guitar is complimented by the airy sound of a xylophone coming over the top. These first two songs display Nguyen’s ability to combine conceivably disparate sounds into a single, hard to pin down sound.

Calmer but remarkably complex ballads like “We Don’t Call” and “The Feeling Kind” follow up “City” in a way that brings the listener down a little from the intensity of the opening songs.

These tracks hearken back a little more to Nguyen’s earlier sound, particularly emphasizing the understated sadness in her moaning vocals. However, they still experiment with some of the musical motifs that are sprinkled throughout this album, such as a light piano and soulful saxaphone not typically present in her early work. The fifth track on the album, “Holy Roller”, was one of the most publicized songs on the album previous to its release, and for good reason. Like “We the Common (For Valerie Bolden),” it puts the banjo at the forefront and ambles through the verse.

But the chorus becomes one of the most emblematic sections of the album, both lyrically and musically: “Holy Roller, roll over me, I’m looking for else to see. Lasts so long, hurts so bad, but I want love in the aftermath.” The single most charming song on the album is “Kindness be Conceived,” a duet featuring Nguyen and indie folk sweetheart Joanna Newsom. Their voices meld perfectly to the backdrop of Nguyen’s driving acoustic guitar, resulting in folk ballad that, frankly, wells me up with emotion every time I listen to it. The gentleness of Newsom’s gentle voice combined with Nguyen’s, a little rougher around the edges, results in an inspiring product.

Instrumentally, “We the Common” features incredible diversity. Nguyen is masterful in all manner of stringed instruments, including guitar (both acoustic and electric), banjo and a particularly jaunty electric mandolin. Her guitar style, as I have witnessed live in promotion of this album, is quite distinct.

She seems to use a grip known as a clawhammer, a type of fingerpicking used by guitarists like Dire Straits virtuoso Mark Knopfler which result in very light, fluttering melodies. Bass also plays a prominent role in the mix of the album, providing a necessary thump to the low end, as highlighted on “The Day Long,” which follows up “Kindness be Conceived” with a much darker sound. And the juxtaposition of dirty, overdriven guitar riffs to twangy banjo and hollow-body guitar melodies throughout the album is key device in evoking a variety of emotions in the listener.

The mix is done particularly well. Bass does feature prominently in certain songs but is never overpowering (an impressive feat as not enough bass could have severely detracted from many tracks). Similarly, the use of saxaphone gives this album a nice, balanced jazz feel to it in all the right places.

I would be remiss not to mention the excellent work of drummer Adam Thompson. The rhythms are incredibly precise but undeniably powerful. Additionally, Thompson has been the one consistent member of The Get Down Stay Down, and deserves praise for helping shape Nguyen’s sound over the years.

“We the Common” is an impressive album front to back. There are really no weak songs on here. Perhaps more impressive, however, is the album’s unity. It truly works as an album and not just a collection of songs. Moods change, and different kinds of sounds become the focus as it progresses along. Still, many of the songs are the kind that you can turn on and sing along to at the top of your lungs.

Finally, it is worth noting that Nguyen is the kind of person who should be in the running for perfect human being. Besides being an active partner of Oxfam, the title track (which contains the words “For Valerie Bolden”) was written for a female prisoner which she met while volunteering in a Bay Area women’s penitentiary. So, while Nguyen may be a brilliant artist, she is also simply a good human being, producing truly meaningful work.

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