By Moira E. McLaughlin
Friday, March 15, 2013
Thao Nguyen’s new album, “We the Common,” which she released with her band, the Get Down Stay Down, is just the sort of record you would expect from a 2006 graduate of William and Mary who studied sociology and women’s studies.
Nguyen writes smart, imaginative tunes with cryptic and philosophical lyrics that belie a depth to the Falls Church native.
Nguyen’s fourth album uses layers of unique sounds that evolve and devolve in and out of the songs to produce an often out-of-control, slightly seasick feeling. On “Move,” horns and strings dot the musical landscape until they collapse into a cacophony only to be revived back to the original melody when the song seems to end with a sigh. “Clouds for Brains” starts with a bass line and a drum beat that can leave a listener feeling lethargic and uncomfortable.
But when Nguyen takes a whimsical and youthful approach, singing oohs and ahs with child-like energy, it relieves some of the album’s musical tension. The opening title track begins with a simple, hollow-sounding banjo, until erupting into an upbeat chorus that contrasts with Nguyen’s lyrics about Valerie Bolden, a prisoner serving a life sentence whom Nguyen befriended through her social work.
The album is filled with a feeling of youthful exuberance and hope. Nguyen doesn’t so much sing melodically as speak rhythmically, as if she’s standing on a milk crate in the middle of her adopted San Francisco home, shouting over a choppy sea of instrumental sounds.