Thao Nguyen - "Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)" (We Brave Bee Stings And All)
Thao Nguyen writes and sings very catchy, knowing songs with artful, oblique lyrics. This might be a definition for the indie-pop genre itself, that vast and self-contained universe sandwiched between twee and genres prefixed with alt-. Thao's backstory: she grew up in the D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, and first took to the guitar at age 12 to fend off boredom. She is also first-generation Vietnamese-American, though her life is never exactly the subject of her songs – at least not in the traditional identity-politics-class-at-a-liberal-arts-college sense. (Thao and some members of her backing band are recent College of William & Mary grads.) Even songs like “Big Kids Table,” which seems to foreground biographicals, are politely retiring. Mostly, her lyrics scrutinize the slight things – mostly relationships – that struggle to either transcend or come to terms with their convenient surroundings. The characters that surface in her songs either take the path of least resistance or break their backs running in place, though they, too, withdraw from scrutiny. Thao's strongest suit is really her melodies, which are thicker and pithier than most artists working in the niche.
Bafflingly, the journos that have lined up to praise her music have underlined her authenticity; where they find this is a mystery, but it's most likely a stand-in here, rockist shorthand indicating the artist writes and performs their own material. In terms of what her actual music sounds like and how it works, the kind of authenticity Thao displays is up for grabs, not gritty or hard-won: when she sings, she’s mostly an observer of, not a participant in her songs' interchangeable settings. Her voice has unexpected heft and rasp, and her singing style, rather than her lyrics, is her songs' emotional core; Thao tends to hit notes hard in the middle and flame-out at the end, giving her melodies a slightly exhausted, worn air. In general, Thao errs toward the impassive where Xiu Xiu's (that other band tackling the suburbs head-on) default is pitched hysteria. Though indie-pop's stock-in-trade is shyly contemplative, coy reflections that remain pointedly oblivious to their surroundings, Thao's approach stands apart because it's about the impasses that crop up when you work at a chain bookstore and go to college not too far from where you grew up and return occasionally to see friends who didn't even make it that far .
Along with her backing band, The Get Down Stay Down, Thao's currently touring with Xiu Xiu in support of her second record (her first with the band), We Brave Bee Stings And All. Some of its better songs are marred by placeholder lyrics and pat rhymes (the chorus of the record's only unrequited burner, "Geography," runs “But I don't know / What I don't know” while "Beat (Health, Life and Fire)" finds Thao posing the rhetorical “How can you stand it / When I run like a bandit?”) This doesn't slow down the rambunctious pace of the album, which only lets up with "Violet," two tracks shy of the end. “Feet Asleep” is one of the album's best songs; originally composed for a Women’s Studies class, its full-band incarnation has a slightly stiff, boozy swagger. The song is sung from Thao's mother's point of view as she surveys her working life: “and oh so little time / I have gone old / This shop, this shop / And all it owns.”
We Brave Bee Stings And All’s moment of clearest purpose comes in "Swimming Pools," whose chorus gives the album its title. “We don't dive, we cannonball / And we splash our eyes full of chemicals / Just so there's none left for little girls,” Thao manages, her winded voice threatening to skid off the song's mannered charge, through its public domain summer 'membries, and into the strange, demanding sexuality roiling under the chlorine-raw pores. Ultimately, WBBSAA is a hard record to dismiss because the emotional-distancing techniques proper to indie and the precious confessions at home in indie-pop are allowed to surface here in an unexpectedly purposeful way. And as tempting as it is to claim that these things suit her mostly suburban subject matter because the ’burbs resist representation (already being pure representation), this also seems like an easy and questionable way of getting out of the nasty business of choosing between taste and judgment. Perhaps, ultimately, the above is another way of saying that my usual aversion to indie-pop preciousness was quelled by the three very good songs here, and bolstered by the album's across-the-board tastefulness, if not exactly won over by its seeming determination, at points, to not be about anything in particular. But then again, that's likely the point. And in transforming boredom to songwriting chops, which she has in turn used to question boredom extensively, Thao has managed to create an document of ambivalent beauty and doubt: a Hissing of Summer Lawns for the Believer set.