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‘A Man Alive’ delivers a little slash, a little burn

Thao Nguyen performing with her band, The Get Down Stay Down, in 2009. (Courtesy of musicisentropy, Wikimedia Commons.)

Thao Nguyen performing with her band, The Get Down Stay Down, in 2009. (Courtesy of musicisentropy, Wikimedia Commons.)
Thao Nguyen performing with her band, The Get Down Stay Down, in 2009. (Courtesy of musicisentropy, Wikimedia Commons.)

Looking for weird melodies, experimental yet strangely accessible jams, or a personal record about love and lack? Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s new album “A Man Alive” somehow checks all of these boxes. Musically, it’s across the board: rock/pop, folk, hip hop, punk, electronica. It’s all there — somewhere.

Working with producer Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down’s latest album has a bizarre edge. They’ve come along way from their excellent debut “We Brave Bee Stings And All” (2008). Like tUnE-yArDs, Thao Nguyen & The Get Down Stay Down have become quite comfortable defying genre categorization.

Exhibit A: Album opener “Astonished Man,” which showcases erratic guitar, groovy beats, and Thao Nguyen’s off-kilter vocals. Comparisons to other indie art-rock acts like St. Vincent, TV on the Radio and early Animal Collective are not unmerited, but something about this feels unique. The key difference here lies in Nguyen’s songwriting.

Some context from the artist: “The record is essentially about my relationship with my dad, its trajectory. It’s a document of my life in conjunction with his, even though we’ve been always leading our lives away from each other. Some are optimistic and forgiving, some are the opposite.”

It’s heavy stuff for a record this fun. The melodies are strange but infectious, and the rhythms are downright funky, even as Nguyen spits such biting lines as, “A little slash, a little burn / A little never to return.” Indeed, one of the more compelling qualities on this album is Thao Nguyen’s skill as a lyricist, her knack for expressing with incredible concision a broad range of emotions, from resentment to forgiveness.

One of the most striking lines comes on “Millionaire,” a song carried by soothing guitar and Nguyen’s relatively tranquil tones. “Millionaire” is probably the closest thing to folk on the album, but don’t let Nguyen’s serene vocals fool you. In one cleverly-crafted line, she unloads a lifetime of bitterness: “Oh Daddy, I’m broke in a million pieces / That makes you a millionaire.” Damn.

Though such bitterness is a key theme on this album (e.g. “You know I’m so easy to find / You won’t come and get your girl”), it’s balanced in equal measure by calm, reflection, and forgiveness. The song “Give Me Peace” has a pensive air, “I’m so much older now / Give me peace, give me peace,” while “Guts” reveals even more emotional complexity: “I have a family, will they pardon me? / Taught to be loyal, never shown loyalty.”

Tension between resentment and peace regarding Nguyen’s relationship with her father drives the album lyrically. This complex web of emotion is perhaps best summed up by Nguyen in the span of a single stanza. On the album’s stirring closer “Endless Love,” Nguyen juxtaposes two lines for devastating effect: “I’ve got endless love, no one can starve,” immediately followed by, ”I don’t want it, carve it on out of me.” A tragic couplet of Shakespearean proportions.

Musically, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down make that kind of wonderfully genre-bending art-rock that is at once experimental and fun as hell. Lyrically, their work is dark, beautiful, at times bitter, at times understanding, but always and above all, honest. You can’t ask for much more than that.

 

Contact Tyler Dunston at [email protected]

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