Thao Nguyen appeared on the national music scene as a 23-year-old Vietnamese-American from Virginia with a voice that exploded, whispered, lulled and beatboxed, and songs that hopped, skipped and danced, even as they explored domestic violence and feminism.
It was no surprise that after the 2008 release of We Brave Bee Stings and All with her band, the Get Down Stay Down (Willis Thompson and Adam Thompson), her catchy and deceptively dense songs were suddenly everywhere: on TV shows, in retail stores, on National Public Radio. Her unique musicianship and her thoughtful lyricism were obvious.
It's been almost two years since the release of We Brave Bee Stings and All, and their new record, Know Better Learn Faster (Kill Rock Stars), burns even more brightly. It is indeed better and faster: Nguyen's melodies arch higher; her songs step out into the sun and stretch, even as they explore a devastating breakup. Nguyen and her band worked again with We Brave Bee Stings producer Tucker Martine, who helped bring in an impressive roster of guest musicians, including Andrew Bird and Laura Veirs (who actually helped sign Nguyen to Kill Rock Stars), among others. As a result, Know Better Learn Faster is, like many of its Oregon-produced counterparts, not only a sparkling, artful album, but yet another example of the cohesion of a diverse talent pool.
At the center of it all, though, is Nguyen herself, who described Know Better Learn Faster as "a lot more emotionally intense."
"We've been touring for almost two years straight, really consistently throughout, and you can't help but be more comfortable playing with each other and more willing to take risks," she explained about her band. "We have come to develop more of a high-energy show over this chunk of time, and I really wanted that energy that we have live to be better conveyed on the new record."
On Know Better Learn Faster, Nguyen howls and cries as the drums clash, the guitars shake, and horns and strings push and pull. The record begins with "The Clap," with multiple voices chanting, "If this is how you want it, OK, OK," but before things get too mournful, "Cool Yourself" dances in with horns and the catchiest chorus on the record. Which is no small feat; the title track (which features guest musician Andrew Bird), "Body" and "Fixed It!" are close contenders. But the more upbeat a song is, the starker the lyrics often are; on "Body," Nguyen asks, "What am I, just a body in your bed?" as the guitars and horns tell a much more uplifting story.
Many of the songs were written about a breakup Nguyen went through as the record was being written, and, thus, are sadder than her previous work.
"The timing was unfortunate and fortunate," explained Nguyen. "A lot of the record is about the end of a relationship—nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary, but it coincided right around the end, so a lot of the record is a lot of what happened and what did not happen."
Rather than being a breakup record that wallows in agony and despair, Know Better Learn Faster is instead Nguyen reflecting, ruminating and processing. "It just follows the chronology of the end," said Nguyen. "Each song is a different exploration of the same subject, but all of the different angles ... and it just so happens it was impossible to cover that in one song."
Even as some songs build a cathartic tension between grief and exultation, others are just plain sad: Nguyen herself pointed to "But What of the Strangers," a sparse song whose instrumentation matches its melancholy.
"I recorded it live, and I didn't even finish it," Nguyen explained. "The version that is on the record is that first take of that version. I was finishing the song as I was recording it, and so there's a lot of emotion there."
It's moments like the one on "But What of the Strangers" that show Know Better Learn Faster is a more mature and daring record for Nguyen. As she explained, "It was really interesting to be that vulnerable and that bare-bones and unequivocally sad about something, because I'm always trying to make a song upbeat with sad lyrics or whatever. But there are a couple of songs on this record that wouldn't stand for it, that were not interested in being juxtaposed."
Know Better Learn Faster is, overall, Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down showing their coherence as a band. Although Nguyen started out as primarily a solo artist, she has always wanted to be in a rock band.
"I wanted that energy; I wanted the collaboration, and I wanted that kind of command of attention that is hard to wrangle as a solo artist, especially with an acoustic guitar," she explained.
The main reason many of her songs are so energetic is because of her history as a solo artist.
"I played a lot of open-mic nights in high school—too many, so many," she said. "And the challenge was always to enter into that drunk, gendered realm as a young teenage girl with an acoustic guitar. To be dismissed upon sight was a challenge; it really did help me develop and kind of bust my chops. ... One of my main motivations was to write as though I was writing for a band, and then try to be more percussive in my playing and have a vocal delivery that was more engaging, and an energy that could engage."
With the Get Down Stay Down, Nguyen now has the ability to write both as a bandleader and a solo artist, and Know Better Learn Faster showcases both abilities.
"I have the luxury of picking and choosing," she said. "... There's this anger and darkness that I wanted to convey with the band, so a lot of the songs I wrote on this record, I don't feel would be justified playing solo, because there was this intensity."