"We the Common," Thao & The Get Down Stay Down (Ribbon)
Thao Nguyen must have been one of those kids who created elaborate fantasies because her act's new release sounds like the adult mainfestation of a child's overactive imagination.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down's "We the Common" is like a series of 12 odd mini-parades, or perhaps 12 different floats/bands rolling through one parade of offbeat eclecticism. It could be loosely described as alternative folk or alternative pop or alternative rock, but more than anything, "We the Common" is alternative theater.
The plucky title-track opener introduces the San Francisco-based act in simple fashion, with Nguyen employing warm, nursery-rhyme cadence: "All they wanted was a villain, a villain/And all they had was me."
From there matters get increasingly complicated: A flurry of fuzzy electric energy and muffled vocals work up something of an unusual cheer on "City," sorta-jazz dovetails with retro-timeless Euro-pop on the churning "We Don't Call," banjo drives the comparatively conventional "Holy Roller" ("I want love and the aftermath"), and Nguyen duets with Joanna Newsom (whose high, child-like voice sounds even more peculiar than Nguyen's woozy phrasing) on the Americana-rooted ballad "Kindness Be Conceived."
"We the Common" gets decidedly less interesting as the eccentric energy drains away and an addled-sounding Nguyen slogs through dirge-like late-album tracks. Even so, she remains curiously intriguing.
The upside of "We the Common" is that on first listen, it rides momentum from the relentless suspense of the unknown because there's no predicting where Nguyen and company will swerve as they go along. The downside is subsequent listens carry the weight of dread of self-indulgent tedium that awaits on several tracks, though at least a few of the songs will inevitably grow in appeal with repeated exposure.
In the end, it's hard to figure out what to take away from "We the Common." It's not background music, yet it's so lost in its own orbit that it doesn't give focus to the attention it demands.
Still, "We the Common" is an uncommon adventure.
Rating (five possible): 3