[3 February 2013]
PopMatters Music Editor
When Thao Nguyen shout-sings, “Everybody knows I’ve got a brand new way,” she can do so in full confidence that everybody really does know because her latest album We the Common proves it. While everything that has made Thao’s handiwork so endearing and compelling is still on full display on We the Common, nobody who’s already familiar with her and the Get Down Stay Down can doubt there’s a brand new way about this batch of songs, both thematically and musically speaking. Although she may be most often described as a singer-songwriter type, Thao has come more and more out of her shell with each successive album, as her focus on seemingly autobiographical vignettes has given way to an interest in more universal stories expressed in an embracing, good-humored tone that’s better suited for a raucous block party than a coffee house.
That’s the case more than ever on We the Common, as Thao and the Get Down Stay Down live up to the album’s title by conjuring up music that’s all about creating a collective experience. So while Thao’s songs in the past were primarily about her own trials and tribulations, particularly when it came to her romantic misadventures, the themes she’s shooting for now are more far-reaching, as she moves past her own exploits and preoccupations. If anything, We the Common was made with a conscious effort by Thao to connect to what’s happening with other folks, whether it’s through her work volunteering with women prisoners in the California state penitentiary system or just going through the day-to-day process of learning how to take part in a social life beyond her own milieu; it’s telling, then, that the leadoff title track is dedicated to a prisoner she met named Valerie Bolden and speaks to what Thao felt she shared in common with her. Indeed, it’s impressive how Thao tells Bolden’s tale on “We the Common” in a way that you wouldn’t know it wasn’t the artist’s own, as the track builds up to the chorus of “Oh, how we the common do cry” that finds release in cathartic, collective ooh-ooh-ooh-ing.
Just a quick glimpse at some of the song titles conveys the communal spirit the album aspires to. “City”, for one, alludes to another of Thao’s important inspirations for We the Common, her move to San Francisco and how she found a community to become more involved with. Set to a heavy, bounding beat and bluesy electric riffs, “City” has a bright, vital energy to it that helps get across the sense that Thao sees herself fitting into something bigger, especially when she sings lines like, “That is my city in shame / Those are my friends inside.” That big-hearted attitude even carries over to the it’s-complicated love songs that have been Thao’s forte, which come across with an I-know-how-you-feel sympathy instead of expressing any sense of dysfunctional self-indulgence. On the slinky, strutting “We Don’t Call”, you can almost imagine Thao figuring out how the nagging burdens of individual relationships fit into a bigger picture, asking “Do we leave too long? / Do you wait too much?,” as if those questions applied to anyone and everyone. Appealing to something more visceral are the almost doo-woppy “Human Heart” and the twangy, jangly rallying cry “Every Body”, songs on which Thao gets at the intimate, hot-and-bothered side of love by tapping into something that others can relate to.
The biggest development on We the Common, though, isn’t Thao’s outlook or philosophy, but, rather, her brand new way with a bigger, more vibrant sound that takes advantage of a co-op-like approach to music making. Sure, the most high-profile case-in-point on We the Common has to be Joanna Newsom’s guest turn on the genial, low-key “Kindness Be Conceived”, where Thao’s drawled, down-home vocals and Newsom’s helium-balloon of a voice complement each other to relate universal sentiments, harmonizing about “Why we breathe and why we die.” But, really, there’s a collaborative spirit that radiates throughout the album, giving you the sense that it took a village to make We the Common. On “Every Body” and the jammy romper “Move”, for instance, Thao seems less and less like an introspective singer-songwriter than the leader of a band of merrymakers, as she moves away from the resourceful folk moves associated with her to something like experimental party music that imbibes in nitty-gritty jazz brass and some neat electronic undertones.
It’s with the boisterous “The Feeling Kind” that Thao most fully expresses musically what she does in her community-minded lyrics, blending together Dixieland jazz horns, a busking folk shuffle, soul organ lines, and an indie mindset in a way where all the styles don’t just play nice with one another, but come together as if you couldn’t imagine them apart. The result is a song that doesn’t just appeal to all these audiences, but is the kind of thing that should bring them together, sounding just as at home in a San Francisco all-ages club, in a side-street in the French Quarter, or on a chilled-out front porch down south. By seeking out a shared experience that everybody they’re reaching out to can hold on to, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down have created an album with We the Common that’s anything but common.