Know Better Learn Faster, Thao Nguyen’s third full length release, marks her second album recorded with backing band The Get Down Stay Down (Adam and Willis Thompson) and with producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Laura Veirs, Spoon). Fresh off the release of her collaboration with The Portland Cello Project, this album sees an expanding of scope, in terms of both the musical production and the depth of her lyrics, while losing none of her taste for the whimsical. As Nguyen herself said: “The album is named Know Better Learn Faster because you can’t. By the time you realise you should, it’s too late. And I enjoy the predicament and the totally devastating, unfunny humour of that.”
That same sense of devastating, unfunny humour is the theme at the centre of this record, one that is flawlessly executed by Nguyen and company. The trio’s near-constant touring over the last year and a half have paid off with a more refined yet no less adventurous sound. However, the genius part is that rather than score the album with haunting sincerity, they instead chose to instill each song with such a sense of joy and forward momentum as to seem blithely optimistic, so that while the tone of the music stays characteristically upbeat the lyrics deftly weave through heartbreak and melancholy. This clash of ups and downs makes for a thoroughly thought provoking listen: never too saccharine sweet nor too bitter sad but always lively, full of movement and grand musical gestures.
Nguyen’s is the kind of music that defies easy genre classification and pulls inspiration from anything it can: roots, blues, post-punk and just a hint of rockabilly. The term ‘folk’ itself is only useful in that it connotes a form of popular music that is based on traditional music; in this case, a blend of traditional American guitar music. Opening number ‘The Clap’ is a perfect example with its field song and gospel influences. “If this is how you want it OK, OK,” cry Nguyen and co. in a brash refrain that’s a pitch-perfect starter to this wonderfully complicated and soulful collection. At once a cheeky challenge to the listener as well as a lyrical farewell to a lover, the song is by turns woeful, resentful and joyous, a brief yet raucous entrée that gets the toes tapping and hints at the range of things to come.
Andrew Bird’s guest appearance on fiddle further enforces the albums already strong ties to blues and roots music, especially in songs like the title track where it wistfully lilts above the action, mirroring the mood of Nguyen’s lyrics. In fact, the songs are so saturated with sound that they at times seem almost damp, as though they would sound their best on a rainy day surrounded by green trees. As such, Nguyen produces what could only be called quintessentially Northwestern folk music, in that it is extremely industrious, irreverent, resourceful, full of contradiction, and fiercely unique.
[Kill Rock Stars; October 13, 2009]