Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down

We Brave Bee Stings and All

(Kill Rock Stars; 2008)

By Traviss Cassidy | 3 February 2008

Musical artists short on talent but big on cutes have long applied their adorability like too much foundation over a pimply mug: essentially a pretty mask covering the flaws beneath. Recent Kill Rock Stars signee Thao Nguyen could have easily pulled this off and fooled many in the process. I mean, she sounds like Cat Power’s plucky adopted sister, and her live performances pack enough breezy charisma to bring to mind Leslie Feist. And yeah, and she’s pretty cute too. Still, to attribute Nguyen’s success as a performer to her adorability would be selling her short because, as her latest album We Brave Bee Stings and All proves, she’s got plenty of solid indie-pop songs hiding behind that precious visage. Plus, holding her to her face would be pretty fucking shallow.

That said, Nguyen’s second long-player is a confident step forward from the simpler candy-folk of her debut Like the Linen (2005) (whose title jabs at her kindergarten classmates’ tendency to pronounce Thao as “Towel”). Here, Nguyen’s songwriting is, for the most part, focused and straightforward, and her songs, augmented by her now-full-time backing band The Get Down Stay Down, pack a stronger punch and bigger hooks than most anything on her debut. Look no further than the new version of “Feet Asleep” which first appeared on the Kill Rock Stars compilation The Sound and the Hare Heard. Whereas that song’s earlier incarnation relied mostly on banjo, minimal percussion, and a few vocal overdubs -- and sounded like the work of a single voice in the studio -- her reworking with The Get Down Stay Down is predictably fuller and far more celebratory, generously adding splashes of Memphis brass and saloon-style piano to her bouncy guitar strumming. Nguyen follows the horns’ trembling sway as she belts, “And oh, so little time / I have gotten old / This shock and awe it owns” with a bravado that belies her needlessly worrisome lyrics. I mean, how old is she anyway?

The Get Down Stay Down’s presence remains strong throughout the rest of the album’s opening two-thirds, and Nguyen strikes gold several times along the way. “Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)” is the first of several songs on the album to dwell on the themes of pain and courage to which the album’s title so inconspicuously alludes. “Beat my bra / Beat my chest / Beat the ones who love me the best,” she sings with steely resolve over drummer Willis Thompson’s martial thwacks. Like many of the songs on Bee Stings, “Beat” is about personal struggle and lost love as much as it is about rising above said struggle and loss. And, of course, it never hurts to have a sweet melody on your tongue when undergoing this daily strife. Similarly, on first single “Bag of Hammers” Nguyen is self-referential in her description of the spoonful of sugar she’s feeding us sad souls: “And as sharp as I sting / As sharp as I sing / It just soothes you / Doesn’t it? / Like a lick of ice cream.” Well played, Nguyen: now you’ve stolen not just our hearts, but our taste buds as well.

Nguyen rounds out Bee Stings’s fine opening stretch with the countrified “Big Kid Table” and banjo-led “Swimming Pools,” with the latter begging to be covered by Feist. (Here’s looking at you, Fantasy Podcast 2008…) Excepting the aforementioned “Feet Asleep,” however, the rest of the songs mostly fail to reproduce the fine-tuned pop that frontloads the album. “Yes, So On So On” and “Fear and Convenience” manage to sound a lot like the songs that preceded them, though in a less memorable fashion. Still, the album’s first real misstep occurs on “Violet,” wherein Nguyen’s high-pitched delivery seems strained and cloying. Also, the easy-breezy vibe of “Travel” and “We Go” whiff a little too strongly of Jack Johnson-owned beachfront property, and they conclude the album on a bit of a sour note. Graciously, there’s no use in quibbling too much over three duds in an 11-track album, especially since the album’s truest success is in the growth of the album’s star. If Nguyen’s next album improves on Bee Stings as much as that album improved on Like the Linen, I doubt I’ll have much cause for complaint at all. Or much of a reason to mention her looks.