Thao Nguyen's voice changes like San Francisco weather. At one moment wistful, confessional, vulnerable, it turns on a dime into righteous physical joy, or fury, or a primal wail that undoubtedly contains both.
Nguyen spent the early part of the aughts deploying this skill in the service of irrefutably catchy, dancey, sometimes anthemic indie-pop. But as a wise woman once sang, time makes you bolder, even children get older, and then, if you're lucky, you become friends with Merrill Garbus.
Okay, so that's taking a few liberties with Stevie's words, but it's true that A Man Alive, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down's fourth studio album, has all the swagger of a woman unafraid to take chances -- even if the results don't turn out pretty.
Garbus, the creative force and rhythm wizard behind Oakland's tUnE-yArDs, produced this album. And it shows: coming from an artist who's often described as twee, this is a hard, welcome lean into cacophonous funk, all left angles and looping pedals, over which Nguyen's wailing vocals and intensely intimate songwriting (several tracks revolve around her absent father) sound less "bird with a broken wing" and more "tired but potentially dangerous animal that you probably shouldn't have pissed off."
"We are not born for departure/but we do learn to take it," she deadpans bitterly on "Departure," over digitally manipulated hand claps and blown-out bass. The low end and guitar distortion on the rocker "Nobody Dies" makes it land with Breeders-esque weight. Even the album's most melty, introspective track, "Millionaire," is propelled by the heartbeat of an enormous kick drum. If it seems incongruous that some of Nguyen's most personal songwriting of the past few years accompanies her first tracks that might make sense pumping through club-size speakers, so be it. She has very few f*cks left to give. And apparently, that's very lucky for us.
Previously: Jay Som, 'Turn Into.'