Thao: We Brave Bee Stings and All


Is anyone else ready for the tsunami of neo-folk singers to crest? It looked like a flourishing trend early in the decade - an influx of introspective, vulnerable, weepy vocalists, with a guitar or a piano and some honest feeling and homey wisdom to push. But the aesthetic has latched on to our consciousness with startling tenacity. It's like some record labels keep taking a voice recorder to an open mic and releasing whatever result comes out the other end. What these artists don't realize is this: if you're going to play the brooding sage, you had damn well better have something sagely to say, because otherwise you're just brooding. Honesty and rawness is over, because by now it's a gimmick. We're all raw and young, and once we age we're still raw, prone to the same mistakes. There's nothing inherently interesting about this aspect of the human condition. Dylan isn't Dylan because he felt more or less than any of the rest of us; he's Dylan because he knew how to communicate it.

Summary: don't feel obligated to dramatize your insights; don't be afraid to say the small thing. Enter Thao Nguyen.

Thao, Thao, Thao, I love you, Thao. I can only describe her appeal as big-sisterly: untouchably mature, but with long flashes of youth and doe-eyed, unmasked fear, and also an air of inclusion, of closeness. And just about everything else at once. As an English major, it's easy for me to geek out on this album, because she presents herself as a flawed and holistic character in an open-ended narrative: she has nothing figured out, and instead she's just palms-up in the middle of the road, proud only of her bewilderment. "Beat the ones who love me the best / Oh, how could they be liars?" That's the line, near the front end of the opening track, that sets the tone for this whole disc: guilt and love and vengeance and hope, all making space for each other in the claustrophobic human consciousness, with no canned conclusion to the mess. Thank goodness.

Oh yeah, are we on a music website? The music is excellent. There's flutter all over this album: clucky beatboxing, hyper-caffeinated guitar lines, hand claps and hums. It's pretty upbeat, especially on the front half of the album, and it throws an extra fold into the aesthetic – the light instrumentation pulls on heavier lyricism, and the appeal of many tracks lies in the magnetism between the two opposites. In "Fear and Convenience," a brightly toned guitar and a pair of summery handclaps underscore the best line on the album: "did he hurt you in a new way?" There are so many moments like this – open, basic, as simple or complex as you want them to be.

On the whole, it seems accurate to say that W.B.B.S.A.A. floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. Or else it cuts like a knife but feels so right. Or you could listen to a track and come up with your own euphemism.

-Philip Taylor-Parker

Check out these similar artists:

Cat Power
Imaad Wasif
Sufjan Stevens

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