Over the past decade, Thao Nguyen has been loyally releasing a pleasant blend of folk and indie rock in the San Francisco area. Backed by bassist-keyboardist Adam Thompson, guitarist Frank Stewart, and drummer Willis Thompson, she took up the moniker Thao & the Get Down Stay Down to release five albums. The most recent of that collection, 2013’s We The Common, dragged Nguyen into the edge of a spotlight. Inspired by her work at a local outreach program at a nearby prison, she used emotionally charged lyrics to shape an album full of shy quirks and boastful optimism — equally socially conscious and sonically light. On A Man Alive, she picks up the floorboards of that album and throws them out the window. Now, it’s all about full-on engagement. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down reinvented themselves in the realm of noisy art rock and Nguyen couldn’t sound more thrilled.
It’s fitting the album opens with Nguyen predicting her flip. “Decades to decide/ I will never be satisfied with how I have been living,” she sings in the first line of “Astonished Man”. A thick bass line pummels each measure of the song. During this track and each one that follows, funk is at the core. It’s crunchy. It’s raucous. It battles with the careful plucks of an acoustic guitar in the background, with the soft shakers in the distance and the backing vocals swirling through stereo filters. In just over three minutes, Nguyen has already gone farther into the deep end of experimentalism than she ever has before — and her catalog, it should be noted, includes a song with notable (but charming) yelper Joanna Newsom.
A Man Alive bears plenty of resemblance to tUnE-yArDs, with the Afropop beat of “Departure” and belch-like synth on “Fool Forever”. It’s no coincidence. As the record’s producer, Merrill Garbus left her fingerprints all over this. Let’s keep the credit where credit is due, though: Nguyen wrote all these songs. She chose to go in the art rock/funk direction; Garbus just polished off the pop. From the buzzy electronic bass on “Endless Love” to the lo-fi, BiRd BrAiNs-y guitar strums on “Give Me Peace”, this is a new direction for Thao & the Get Down Stay Down that brings them into the brilliantly off-key bubble of music.
Such a dramatic shift in the band’s sound would normally fit like a cheap Halloween costume, complete with rubber mask, but Nguyen’s crew feels far freer in their new look. It works because it stays rooted in pop. The drunken walk of “Slash/Burn” calls on a vocal chorus that gets stuck in your head. “Meticulous Bird” treads almost the exact same rhythm as Lady Gaga’s “Beautiful Dirty Rich”. This is pop that finds itself biting its nails and painting each one a different vibrant shade once it’s sanded down. A Man Alive is all about twisting pop music’s conventions until a tear appears at its side, exposing the incredibly alluring colors of its organs. All the while, Nguyen’s original indie rock comes to air level so its innovative tunings and melody slides can turn a new hue from the oxygen.
A reinvention wouldn’t be complete without growing pains, and this is no exception. “Millionaire” inhales and exhales without ever standing up to walk anywhere. Instead, it settles on a lackluster country style that suggests its lyrics are worth the wait — which, unfortunately, they’re not. “Guts”, a cabaret-style strut that’s stripped down compared to its surroundings, forgets to pace itself, drawing out a yawn at various points throughout.
Even with quiet moments that forget to entertain, Nguyen sounds like she’s having more fun than ever before on A Man Alive. The album’s strongest song, “Nobody Dies”, sees her splatter paint all over each instrument, diving into her guitar like St. Vincent while the drums hiccup and smirk. She drags her voice dramatically like Regina Spektor. She lets out a few yells. Why not? Over the course of 40 minutes, Nguyen plays like she just entered freshman year of college and realized she can finally throw the idea of Younger Thao aside, make a new introduction as Current Thao, and be herself — Artsy Thao. It’s right there on the cover: She stands tall, shoulders back, facing the camera square in the eye. This is how Nguyen wants to present herself now. Come the album’s end, we’re only left with one thought: What took so long?
Essential Tracks: “Nobody Dies”, “Meticulous Bird”, and “Astonished Man”