[27 October 2009]
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.
Thao’s last album has been described as playful, and KBLF is possibly even more so. Most of this album is instrumentally upbeat, which belies the anger, frustration, melancholy and loss that imbue its lyrics. Nguyen launches the track “Easy” with the statement, “Sad people dance too”. That line perfectly captures the ethos of this unassumingly seductive album, simultaneously groove-ridden and melancholic. Indeed, several danceable tracks have a funk riff reminiscent of Modest Mouse, Cold War Kids, and Spoon (coincidentally, the album was produced by Grammy-nominated Tucker Martine, who has worked with Spoon). It’s a special feat they’ve accomplished. Think of their company: the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” was hilariously ironic and given to sing-alongs, but danceable?
While part of the irony of this album stems from the relationship between lyrics and instrumental accompaniment, it also stems from Nguyen’s vocal style, which has a certain childish quality about it, resulting in some songs having a slight similarity to nursery rhymes. This is nowhere more evident than in the opening slow dance funk of “When We Swam”. The comparisons with Chan Marshall will continue on this record (perhaps especially on “Trouble Was For”, as her voice climbs to a higher note with each of those title words). However, on the faster songs, such as “Body”, Nguyen displays a funked vocal style perhaps closest to Modest Mouse’s Issac Brock, alternating with a tone and pitch not far from the distinctive whine-sing of Clap Your Hands’ Alec Ounsworth. Despite the pleasant echoes, she is no imitation.
The song arrangements are also one of the album’s strengths. Songs like the opener, “The Clap”, demonstrate mature layers and developments that transform some songs from beginning to end. “The Clap” begins as a kind of spiritual, but soon stomp-claps keep time for the repetitive blues riff “If this is how you want it okay, okay”—for 33 seconds exactly. It moves from spiritual like “Let My People Go” and ends up being welded onto a clap-happy grade-school-music-class number. Consider also “Oh, no”, a patient, complex slow-burn-of a song, at its peak unveiling a gorgeous layering of back up vocals, cymbal crashes, and high-pitched, low-mixed guitar weeps and moans (imitating a country pedal steel).
Equally memorable for its arrangement is the title track, which features Andrew Bird’s strings and minor-key musings. This very Bird-stamped track begins sparse, with mere shakers for percussion and a couple of briskly plucked clear electric guitars accompanying Nguyen’s sadly emotive and often sharply punctuated vocals. However, one-minute later, Bird’s long and weepy bow strokes enter, followed by a galloping drum beat. The song exhausts itself with Bird’s trademark theremin-like whistling, going out balefully with Nguyen’s whimper, “Oh, Oh, Oh”.
“Oh, oh, oh” is a good opening into the lyrical virtues of this album. Stripped of their instrumental and delivery contexts, the lyrics will appear hopelessly simple. They tell the timeless story of love, loss, and heartache, especially noticeable in the abundance of woeful oh’s and no’s throughout, which as refrains embedded in the music perfectly punctuate all other lines. “I need you to be, better than me, you need me to do, better than you”, Nguyen reflects in “Know better, learn faster”, which she promptly follows with “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh”, each one held for a few seconds as they ascend and then descend the music scale, sounding like inconsolable sobbing. Similarly, the provocatively titled “Burn You Up” fades with wails of “oh” after having offered confessions and impossible fantasies about love lost: “I mishandled you, but don’t you think we came close? Oh oh-o-oh. Don’t you want to come home with me?” On several occasions the lyrics speak to the lost lover, pleading for him to come back or stay, as in the catchy “When we swam”, which ends rather elongatedly: “Oh why, oh why, oh whyyyyyy, won’t you stay?” If we can’t identify with that then we probably haven’t lived much yet. What’s beautiful is that Nguyen can reflectively, even playfully, make music about it. As for the rest of us doomed to suffer the same fate: at least we have this music as comfort to dance to.
Know Better, Learn Faster is without a doubt one of the best indie folk-rock albums of the year.