‘Get down, stay down’ may sound like a direct command (imagine your clichéd ‘give me fifty’ drill instructor barking it in your ear) – but such straightforward bludgeoning really isn’t the style of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, the San Francisco act who just happen to be BAMM.tv’s new Featured Artist.
This isn’t to say that there’s no immediacy to their music. Thao Nyugen and her mainstay cohort Adam Thompson (the band members have previous included Frank Stewart and Willis Thompson) have crafted a body of work which – while loosely fitting within umbrella terms like alt-rock and folk-rock – opens up with multiple listens to reveal rewarding intricacies, unique vocal and musical flourishes, and melodies within melodies.
You may think you’re getting everything with a surface listen – and an enjoyable surface listen it definitely is – but sentiments like ‘you are a dead man/I just have to shoot the gun’ (‘Body’) and ‘I come back because the punches always hit the same’ (‘Trouble Was For’) show off a beguiling complexity. Think of similar creative multi-taskers like Broken Social Scene, Jim Ward, Cat Power, Fiona Apple and Feist – not a bad line-up to be mentioned alongside – and you’ll be close.
Or, y’know, just listen to them. (click ‘more’ to continue)
It’s a sound that Thao herself described to us as ‘loose and dirty … but with a good heart’, taking inspiration from “Motown, Stax, old country, country blues” as well as individual creative forces – “writer Grace Paley,” for instance, as well as “Paul Simon, The Kinks, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Byrds” – and moulding it into something entirely her own.
While many San Francisco-based artists (particularly those who spent their whole lives in the region) embrace a sound that many have come to see as unique to the city, Thao and her assorted bandmates are a somewhat more diverse prospect. Growing up in Falls Church, Virgina, Thao first picked up a guitar at the age of 12, the initial formation of the band happening in her college years – “we all met in VA in school,” she remembers, “and I asked the dudes to be my band because I was tired of being alone.”
Once further established, she set off on a whirlwind frenzy of touring – alongside critically-acclaimed artists such as Andrew Bird, Mirah and Laura Veirs – which took up most of her twenties. While undoubtedly part and parcel of the hard work that has ensured her success, this experience proved to be something of a baptism of fire (intriguingly, when we ask Thao what she considers her weakest moment to date to have been, she responds with a simple “my early twenties”).
She later settled in San Francisco, a place where she has clearly found a home and laid down roots, as demonstrated by what she conversely describes as her proudest moment to date: her work with the California coalition for women’s prisoners. “My membership in CCWP and the work I’ve been doing in prisons and the San Francisco County Jail are the most deeply I’ve ever dedicated myself to a cause outside myself,” she explains. “I’d been working with great groups like 826 Valencia and ATC and Oxfam America, but not in such a profound and personal way, and not with an organization that I felt needed me as a community member, not as a musician.”
Indeed, such is the impact that this work has had on Thao that the title track of new album ‘We The Common’ is dedicated to Valerie Bolden, a prisoner who she met during one of her visitations. This and other elements of San Francisco life have cumulated in an interesting artistic development. “My songwriting is more outward looking,” she reflects, “and I am more free and confident and the beats are fatter and the guitar is leaner. Band wise: Adam still plays bass. Everyone else is new to the lineup.”
Of course, if we want to analyse this artists development for ourselves, there’s no better way than cracking open the archives of the back catalog …
Thao Nyugen released her debut album ‘Like The Linen’ in 2005. It’s probably worth remembering that – in an age in which music and technology have intertwined to make a rapidly-changing landscape – 2005 might as well be 1750. No-one had heard of YouTube yet. Facebook was a college website. MySpace was beginning the ascent that would swiftly become a descent. And Thao … well, in terms of accomplishment, Thao was already way ahead of the curve. She was already pretty damn good.
Needless to say that ‘Like The Linen’ does feel like a debut – not so much someone ‘finding their feet’, but laying down solid foundations on which to build. It is easily her most straightforward and easy-to-pigeonhole work; while still imaginative and playful, the subtle experimentation and twists of later material were yet to emerge.
“Thao Nguyen’s compilation of ten songs is anything but complex, and this includes her lyrics,” wrote Matty Wise. “They tend to be rather romanticized, often talking about unrequited love, relationships, themes of that nature. “Most of her songs simply are a guitar, bass, and drum playing background to her voice. The guitar is bouncy, upbeat, but not overwhelming, and it carries the songs through. But what really shines is Thao’s voice.” Other reviewers saw the burgeoning eclectic force on display, such as Splendid Magazine’s Atossa Abrahamian, who mused that “her tendency to double- or triple-track her vocals is one of Like The Linen’s most distinctive trademarks. In other hands, this approach can be annoying, but Nguyen’s sound is so subtle and nuanced that hearing two or three of her at a time never seems like overkill.”
Three years later (rest of the band now namechecked) Thao & The Get Down, Stay Down unleashed ‘We Brave Bee Stings And All’, a record whose bravado-infused title perfectly reflected a bolder, more confident approach to both songwriting and music-making. “Nguyen’s inviting folk pop has some of Jolie Holland’s woozy swagger, a pinch of Beth Orton’s genteel grace, and endless reserves of energy,” raved Spin magazine. “Her deceptively sophisticated songs offer intriguing sketches of troubled lives … her aversion to standard melodrama makes her terse dispatches all the more convincing.”
“Some artists struggle to produce anything worth listening to after their debut,” wrote the similarly effusive Asia Xpress, “but like a banjo-wielding bard slaying a high-level boss, Nguyen has leveled up and refined her skills in We Brave Bee Stings And All. The album’s thoughtful, melodic poetry carries the same impact no matter how many times they’re heard.”
As if to acknowledge this leap forward in both critical and commercial success, it only took a year for the next aptly-titled album to emerge: 2009’s ‘Know Better, Learn Faster’. “We Brave Bee Stings and All played like a very personal, at times even lonely, coming-of-age story,” wrote Pitchfork. “By contrast, the follow-up is the post-party comedown, a collection of hard-learned lessons about love, sex, and human connection. Know Better Learn Faster is a more mature record, slightly disillusioned with the world, but no less playful and with no less personality.” Popmatters had an even more straightforward summation: “Know Better, Learn Faster is without a doubt one of the best indie folk-rock albums of the year.”
And so to the present day, and 2013’s brand new album ‘We, The Common’ (at least that’s the roster for Thao & The Get Down, Stay Down – Thao as a solo artist also released an album in 2011, in which she teamed up with fellow single-named singer-songwriter Mirah). Produced under the watchful eye of producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Bill Callahan, Explosions in the Sky, The Walkmen), it’s a rollicking, energized and typically vibrant new entry in the canon of a hugely prolific artist.
Released to the usual reception of rave reviews, ‘We, The Common’ also expands on Thao’s natural affinity for collaboration with similar artists. ‘Kindness Be Conceived’ – one of the album’s many highlights – sees her teaming with indie superstar Joanna Newsom, while the video for the title track features an appearance from ‘This American Life’ host Ira Glass (whose weekly showcase of amazing human-interest stories ties in with Thao’s oeuvre perfectly).
Despite an ongoing musical journey full of such major accomplishments, it is Thao’s down-to-earth charm and perspective that stands as one of the major takeaways from her body of work. The band are still powered by “enthusiasm and drink tickets and sharpies,” her heroes remain “Mom, Grandma and Truth” and her dream gig would be “whatever show my grandmother would come to. Not that she doesn’t want to, she’s just very old”.
Best of all are her recollections of working with BAMM.tv. “I remember such kindness, amazing production value, professionalism and amazing beards,” she says. Well, now you’re just making us blush …
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