It was Lucinda Williams who cleverly quipped that the finest songs “sound happy but are so sad”. Thao Nguyen (who ditched the tongue-twisting surname for her stage name) seems to not just agree with this sentiment, but perhaps embrace it as an artistic philosophy on her sophomore album, We Brave Bee Stings and All. “My songs reflect my personality as far as shirking the seriousness of things,” she says. “Big Kid Table”, among the album’s finer tracks, is an example of this: over the tuneful and folkish guitar interplay, backing vocals, and odd percussive sounds, Thao characterizes herself as a “small kid at the big kid table” and laments in frustration: “It is not as though I do not know it hurts me / It’s just I drink only that which makes me thirsty!”
Meanwhile, the bouncy rhythms and “ooh ooh!” chorus of “Beat (Health, Life and Fire)” threaten to obscure the message of betrayal hiding beneath the surface. “Beat the ones who love me the best”, Thao sings over the melodic cacophony. “Oh, how could they be liars? / They insure me health, life and fire”. Is this the contradiction Leonard Cohen was aiming for when he practically vandalized his typically solemn September 11th ode (“On That Day”) with that absurd mouth-harp solo? Is Kill Rock Stars (the label that brought us Deerhoof, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney) suddenly going soft?
Thao, a Vietnamese-American raised in Falls Church, Virginia, supposedly perfected her solo songwriting during slow hours working at her mother’s Laundromat. Her relationship with Kill Rock Stars began when her prolific touring landed her a spot on the label’s 2006 singer-songwriter compilation, The Sound the Hare Heard. Ultimately, her backing band, the Get Down Stay Down, augments the instrumental layers (Melodica! Wurlitzer! Piano Marxaphone??) on what could otherwise be a monotonous solo affair. The 23-year-old’s voice falls somewhere between a less squeaky Joanna Newsom and a more unstable Feist; as for the music, imagine a more stubbornly off-kilter (though delightfully poppy) Cat Power with a penchant for lovely backing vocals and cryptic lyrics. Playfully cryptic, that is — with a mournful edge.
Oh yeah, she can also beat-box and hum simultaneously; the sublime first single “Bag of Hammers” proves this skill, as well as Nguyen’s ability to write a bitingly catchy chorus. Despite the album’s darker lyrical themes, this track is pure pop, a shimmering melodic burst with ringing guitars and a New Wave-like backbeat. “Geography” is equally wonderful, a mid-tempo groove highlighted by an utterly infectious call-and-response riff between the guitar and keyboard. I can easily envision the track being Thao’s breakout hit; so what if closer examination reveals lyrics that read like Thom Yorke’s secret diary (“You are a cheater / You are fire proof / I am a smoky plume / I am a ladder to your bedroom”)? Then there’s “Feet Asleep”, an eclectically-arranged ode to the artist’s mother (said to have “worked too hard for too long and has never felt compelled to complain or lament”), again filtered through Thao’s precise wordplay (“I work my arms too hard / Just to give you an airplane ride”).
The latter half of We Brave Bee Stings and All has a mellower, more earthly vibe than the first, and it’s not quite as satisfying. However, “Fear and Convenience” is the real standout track, pairing low horn flourishes with guitar feedback to great effect. The lyrics are even more impenetrable than usual, and this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing — like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, the singer’s imagery (talk of “riches in the company van” and “senses dry as cotton”) seem to refer to specific characters and events in the artist’s life, and it’s fine with me if each line doesn’t merit a Cliff-notes explanation. As in the aforementioned Bejar’s lyrics, often the most fascinatingly poetic bits of wordplay are impossible to decipher at a literal, universal level, unlike, say… U2. Thao’s dense, often puzzling lyrical wit is an inseparable part of her charm, but it’s her talent for raw melody that rewards the listener the most. Imperfections and all, Thao’s KRS debut is, more than anything, a display of potential, and indie-folk fans can do much worse than take notice.