We’ve Things to Do: Sitting with We the Common
“Yes, we get naked / but not naked enough,” Thao Nguyen sings in “Every Body” off her third album with the Get Down Stay Down. As a teenager, while inspired by old country and newer country like Lucinda Williams, Nguyen would practice playing the guitar while working at her mother’s laundromat. But as she grew older, when she started to sing of being 27, Nguyen concerned herself with these in-between stages––growing pains (2008’s We Brave Bee Stings and All), sex without intimacy (Know Better Learn Faster). Moving on is often easier said than done, but Nguyen’s ideas of coping mechanisms certainly helped. She would create reasons to clap, stomp, and simply move, as her nimble guitar melodies also helped guide, then steer away from the wreckage of us, crumbling before her.
But in third album We the Common, Nguyen’s target grows bigger as the Get Down Stay Down’s sound expands. Its new single, the album’s title track, is a rallying cry inspired by Nguyen’s time spent volunteering for the California Coalition of Women Prisoners. And for the majority of We the Common, and with just as much heart as in the past, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down buckle down and focus on the moments that could lead to such cries, if lucky––this other in-between stage that rests between taking a stance and actually fighting.
Perhaps the biggest difference between We the Common and its predecessors is how Thao with the Get Down Stay Down instructs us to move. Unbridled, hootenanny vibes are replaced with a poppy hodgepodge. Off-kilter melodies carry on and pass through bass breakdowns (“Every Body”), eerie detours (“The Day Long”), and brass tooting––how the Get Down Stay Down illustrates Nguyen’s “ghost of New Orleans” (“The Feeling Kind”). Over what feels like blips and soundbytes of scenes from all over, We the Common could feel unexpectedly experimental to those who know Nguyen as a folk singer. Still, as dubbed voices make Nguyen out to be a ringleader, and even when those voices recede, Nguyen’s gentle warble provides a clear path.
Which is necessary, since We the Common holds everyone accountable––them, us. In “Move,” Nguyen sings of legislators as if walking away in defeat: “I could not stand to have no center / I was just paper being moved.” And in highlight “We Don’t Call,” a near-listless Nguyen attempts to shove aside her guilt––”Well bye bye baby, I’m going to work”––but ends up turning right back around, to dwell: “Do we leave too long? Do we wait too much?” With these sorts of worries, especially while coupled with slightly fidgety pop, We the Common reminds us of how not acting, not doing can rattle and then subdue us over time, how that guilt looms large over even those with the best intentions.
But while the majority of We the Common wrestles with this messy middle ground, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down make clear that they sing from the same loving place of their previous albums. The record’s simplest, most comforting song is “Kindness Be Conceived,” set to little else but an acoustic guitar and a trotting beat. Nguyen and Joanna Newsom––whose last album, 2010’s Have One on Me, was a triple album of baroque pop––sing together on this succinct front-porch affair as if they’ve done so for years. Quickly, swiftly, its gentle gait eases us into the song’s most important observation, located at its chorus: “There is a concrete stuck between how we breathe and why we die / why we breathe and why we die.” At important moments like these, just a few words help distinguish between We the Common‘s conflicts and resolutions––just as how the necessary steps from a problem to a solution can be small and within reach. In We the Common, we‘ve got this.
We The Common is available through Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s website.