We the Common, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s fifth album, sees the group taking on new challenges and moving away from the character of their previous records. Released last Tuesday, on the Ribbon Music imprint, We the Common pulls back the reins of the band’s energetic alternative rock to adopt a more organic folk-pop. Catchy and complex, Thao’s melodies and arrangements are enchanting and uplifting. From the wordless chorus of the album’s fantastic title track to the gospel-inflected power of “Holy Roller,” We the Common has a positive energy that makes it an absolute pleasure to listen to.
Thao Nguyen, the lead singer and principal songwriter for the group, provides captivating vocals that guide the listener brilliantly through both playful and soulful moments on the record. As she switches between light-hearted verses and thunderous choruses, Thao recalls Karen O in her efficient shifts in intensity, and her capacity for levity and poignancy.
Thao’s vocals, however, are more grounded in blues and soul sensibilities. Instead of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ punk screams, think Alabama Shakes’ vocalist Brittany Howard with a little Feist mixed in. Some have even described her as “Cat Power in cowboy boots.”
Americana influences pervade the record, from the doo-wop shuffle of “Human Heart” to the Western show-tune roll of “The Feeling Kind.” In “Kindness Be Conceived,” accompanied by singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, Thao harmonizes over a rollicking country-folk number, which juxtaposes a more pbeat melody with darker lyrics, asking “how we breathe and why we die.” The band’s open debut of these older styles is evident even in the songs that lack clear vintage references. We the Common features horns, mandolins, cellos and honky-tonk keyboards to great effect, creating a kind of Southern version of the so-called baroque pop of the Decemberists. There’s even a bit of the playful romp of the Beatles’ “Savory Truffle” in the sharp, growling saxophones of “We Don’t Call.” As was often the case with the Fab Four themselves, the group have looked backwards in time to reinvigorate their sound.
Unlike other bands’ similar experiments with multi-instrumentalism, this album succeeds because it does not let these additions trivialize the core sound. In a genre where banjos often come off as kitschy, they sound comfortably familiar here. These songs are still rock songs at their core, with the fuzz bass and crashing symbols to prove it. No surprises there, of course: The echoes of country-western slide guitar in the Pixies’ “Silver” and throughout Beck’s recordings are testament to alternative rock’s country connection, and are precedents for the more acoustic, folksy sound that Thao & The Get Down Stay Down have adopted.
The album does loose its footing towards the second half, falling into a lull that betrays the vitality of the first half-dozen songs. The bluegrass-inspired “Every Body” is unable to escape from its repetitive and overpowering mandolin, while “The Day Long” drifts along aimlessly, lacking the melodic backbone of a strong chorus. This muted streak reaches its apex in the ethereal “Clouds for Brains,” a sparse and drowsy folk ballad. Together, these tiresome tracks are a let-down compared with the album’s ambitious opening half, which jumps energetically from joy to rowdiness to soul and back. But, to give the album a charitable reading, perhaps the quiet before the storm was exactly what the group intended. With “Human Heart” and “Age of Ice,” We the Common leaps back into action for a conclusion made all the more raucous by the interval that precedes it.
Ultimately, it is the sincerity of Thao’s vocals and musical inheritances that make this album so appealing. “Oh honey, look alive!” she urges in “The Feeling Kind,” “It’s just human troubles in the modern times.” It is hard not to see connections to everyday life, to my own struggles.
The line perfectly captures what I find to be so special about We the Common; the energy, the originality, but above all, the sense of warmth and intimacy that provides an escape from what can be an all too cold world.