Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive (Ribbon) Review

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Thao and the Get Down Stay Down play a 2009 show at now-closed venue The Woods in Portland, Oregon. Photo: parttimemusic/Wikimedia Commons

If you follow the career of Thao Nguyen, then you have restless ears.

Through a string of albums as a solo artist, with her band The Get Down Stay Down, and numerous collaborations with everyone from pop experimentalists Mirah and Joanna Newsom to the Portland Cello Project, Nguyen has created a growing body of work that encompasses everything from folk to country to rap to everything else you can basically think of. But she always still sounds like herself.

Ribbon Music
Ribbon Music

Her latest offering, A Man Alive, is no different, expanding and refining her sound, and maximizing the input of producer Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs fame (the two worked together on 2011’s stellar Thao + Mirah album, which is also well worth your time). The entire album brims with blips and bleeps and distorted drum beats and loops, but it never once overshadows Thao’s voice, both literally and in the musical sense, and maintains a high level of feeling very organic, keeping traditional songwriting craft in the forefront. Although very electronic, this is pretty far away from being an electronic album.

The spooky vibe of first single “Astonished Man” kicks the record off, with a melody that climbs and circles back on itself before resolving at the very end. From there, A Man Alive gets on with the business of keeping the groove going, most often with big, trashy-sounding drum machine beats, and little stops and starts that allow for Nguyen to throw out the occasional experimental flourish (like raked piano strings), lyrical emphasis, or bonkers treated guitar licks.

“Nobody Dies” is a high point, with the existential reminder “We act like nobody dies,” giving us a little medicine with all the sugar.

At times, the production does risk becoming too thematic, but right when it’s on the verge of going there, Thao yanks you back into the tunes, and you’re right back there with her at the most eccentric folk dance party you can imagine.

A Man Alive comes out March 4 on Ribbon Music.

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Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.