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The Thao of Now

Because spring is all about dancing through contradictory strains of melancholy and joy, it’s a perfect time to listen to the tangled, effervescent music of Virginia native Thao Nguyen, showcased on the almost surreally catchy “Bag of Hammers” and most of her soulful sophomore album, We Brave Bee Stings and All. Thao draws plenty of comparisons to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, and while I can see the similarity when she covers Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin, I suspect that this is simply shorthand for describing a strong-willed female singer who is hard to figure out. I hear flashes of a few other singers; at times, she resembles a more forthright Jolie Holland, a less deadpan version of her former tour partner Laura Veirs, or even a young Rickie Lee Jones channeling the whimsical, world-wise mood of the Velvets’ Mo Tucker (I’d love to hear Thao try “Afterhours” or “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking”).

But most of the time, she really just sounds like the Thao of now, pouring water and gasoline on my ever-changing moods of 2008. Musically, “Bag of Hammers” is like getting an extra couple of months of summer vacation, with transportation courtesy of the supple rhythm section in Thao’s brilliantly named backing band, the Get Down Stay Down. Pay only casual attention to the classic pop hook and the kid-friendly claymation video, and faster than you can say “Leslie Feist,” you might swear you are listening to the new Apple theme song.

But if you think Thao can be written off as this year’s poster girl for quirky charm, listen carefully and you’re going to get dunked in the swimming pool. She’s a real writer (and former critic for No Depression) who has a knack for distilling her song’s essence in a pithy phrase (“as sharp as I sting, as sharp as I sing, it still soothes you, doesn’t it, like a lick of ice cream?”; “geography’s gonna make a mess of me”; “we splash our eyes full of chemicals/ just so there’s none left for little girls”). She’s a real musician who can play killer guitar riffs with a toothbrush. She’s capable of rocking out, as she did live in a great recent set opening for Xiu-Xiu, and does in spades on the new wavy “Beat.” She can be moving, hilarious, or both at the same time. She has the good taste to list the Funk Brothers and Orchestra Baobab among her favorite bands. And let’s face it, do you know any other alums from the William and Mary women’s studies department who are able—or willing—to simultaneously beatbox and hum Gary Glitter’s sports arena anthem, “Rock and Roll, Part Two”? (See the clip of “Geography” below.)

Thao, “Bag of Hammers”

Thao, “Geography”

Thao, “Beat”

From → Heavy Rotation

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