Since debuting with 2005′s Like The Linen, twenty-three year old Thao Nguyen has become something of an indie press darling in her native US, with spots on NPR’s revered ‘All Songs Considered’ series and opening slots on Rilo Kiley’s latest Stateside tour. The perils of being tagged with Next Big Thing status are well documented but with We Brave Bee Stings & All, her first release for West Coast indie label Kill Rock Stars, Nguyen is assured of a reprieve from such a fate with some of the finest crafted music of 2008. It’s all magnificently produced by Laura Veirs associate Tucker Martine, and Veirs herself lends backing vocals, as do Karl Blau and Steve Moore of her backing band Saltbreakers.
As you might expect from someone who cites the Lilith Fair scene as an early influence, at their heart Thao’s brief two- to three-minute songs are pure folk-pop but the addition of her backing band, The Get Down Stay Down, has filled them out nicely. Quirky melodies mix with jangly guitars, handclaps and snappy percussion conjures a sound not unlike a more folksy Vampire Weekend. The music itself, however, is only the surface of Nguyen’s talent. Much of the magic of We Brave Bee Stings & All lies within the lyrics. Nguyen writes of her experiences with skillful poise and gutsy poetry. Make no mistake though, this is dark and powerful magic, not the stuff of fairytales.
With her warbling vocals channelling a more carefree Chan Marshall, the quietly strummed ‘Fear & Convenience’ bears the hint of someone looking back at their life in regret with images of “senses dry as cotton” and “petrified hearts”, while the otherwise upbeat single ‘Bag Of Hammers’ is even more sinister. Here, Nguyen spins a mysterious web with several interpretations, perhaps even digging into an abusive childhood. Still, there is a glimmer of light here too. The delightful duet between guitar and piano that is ‘Yes, So On & So On’ offers hope despite a hint of resignation, while ‘Swimming Pools’ seems to draw on Nguyen’s sociology and women’s studies background with a song that may or may not be about the strength of women in the face of adversarial forces: “We are nothing if not your granddaughters / we have been nothing but dignified / we, we brave bee stings and all / and we don’t dive, we cannonball.”
Nguyen has come far from her sparser beginnings, marrying her captivating and intelligent lyricism to occasionally brilliantly inventive and infectious melodies fleshed out by her band. But as excellent as the musicianship is, We Brave Bee Stings & All seems destined to remain the preserve of those with a certain acquired taste. Some will find Nguyen’s off-kilter voice and raw delivery charming, while others will find it grating and difficult to digest. The technical skill on show here is undisputed and richly rewarding to those who give it a chance, but if you’re looking for instant gratification you are almost certain to be disappointed.
[Kill Rock Stars; January 28, 2008]