Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Thao with the Get Down Stay Down - Know Better Learn Faster (* * * *)

I was introduced to Thao Ngyuen's music at the beginning of last year with the release of her album We Brave Be Stings and All, which I thankfully stumbled upon and quickly fell in love with. Her distinctive but ear-pleasing voice and quirky, enlightening look into relationships was perfectly complemented by the sometimes folky, sometimes funky sound she and her band create - charming, bright, and endlessly catchy. She and the remainder of her band - The Get Down Stay Down (bassist/keyboardist Adam Thompson and drummer Willis Thompson) -are now back with another full-length entitled Know Better Learn Faster, the band's third effort and one that at least matches the quality of its predecessor while moving the band stylistically forward. The formula the band follows is quite similar this time around, but guests such as Eric Earley from Blitzen Trapper and Andrew Bird lend a bit more variance and depth while the band approaches these tunes with groovier, more danceable attitude.

Opening the record is a 30 second gospel stomp called "The Clap" that left me wanting much more upon first listen, that is until the intro guitar lick of "Cool Yourself" met the funky bass line and simply effective drum riff under Thao's welcome first vocal appearance - and when the horns came in for the "whoa whoa whoa" refrain, I was in pop heaven. And so it continued as I made my way through the record, each great moment subsiding into something equally as fantastic and smile-inducing. The band doesn't frequently over-complicate their music - leaving Thao plenty of room in the spotlight, but their attention to instrumental detail gives these songs so much life; Willis Thompson is a wizard on percussion, using a variety of techniques and instruments to create just the right sound at the right time, while Thao's guitar and Adam Thompson's bass twirl nimbly around each other constantly. Also, little extras like Andrew Bird's unmistakable violin work and whistling on the album's title track provide the occasional and pleasant surprise. The music works best when upbeat and cheery (even when the lyrics are decidedly less so - Thao herself labeled this as a breakup album), like the aforementioned "Cool Yourself," the clap-happy, groovy "Fixed It!," and the bouncy closer "Easy." The few ballads are slightly less consistent, but they round out the record's 13 tracks appropriately without disrupting the momentum much.

Thao's energetic and emotional (and usually optimistic) nature is infectious - allowing her to transfer the feeling of each melody and lyric directly to the listener, which makes Know Better Learn Faster a rich and enjoyable experience from any angle. Also, it's unlikely that you'll hear anything quite like it this year or any other, for that matter - the trio have made something both unique and inspired. There are a lot of great rock albums to hear this year, but you'd be a fool not to make time for Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.