Released in early 2008, We Brave Bee Stings And All is the second album by the Virginia-raised/San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen, but it's the first with her band The Get Down Stay Down and the first for esteemed label Kill Rock Stars. The Olympia-based label has a catalog of strong songwriting personalities and Nguyen is no different, releasing a now-much-acclaimed album that showcases wit and sadness throughout eleven compelling tracks.
As with most of the great rock music in history, emotional strife is central to many of Thao's song-stories, delivered with a unique voice that can project strength and resignation with equal cool. That voice guides the listener through a set of pieces blending indirect narratives with raw self-aware expressions. "Fear And Convenience" begins with a mix of those qualities, as the singer tells us, "I have seen fear and convenience/I have never glimpsed a romance/All my riches in the company van/I drove much faster than the rain." It's an endearing blend that makes the tales somewhat immediate while leaving much to interpretation.
We Brave Bee Stings... was produced by Tucker Martine, whose resume includes a diverse array of groups like The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Jesse Sykes and Laura Veirs. Martine's also the drummer in Veirs' band, and, as one might expect from much of his CV, has produced a record that is clean and layered with Nguyen's voice always at the center, but never its only star. A variety of instruments get to shine over the course of the album; the song "Geography" alone rolls along on a wash of cymbals, funky bass and dueling electric and acoustic guitars, with a catchy organ line selling the groove in the chorus. Having unpacked much of the song here, it should sound like a chaotic affair, but the layers all blend seamlessly.
One song later, on "Feet Asleep," the band ups the ante with piano, banjo, brass and woodwinds providing a swelling old-timey feel before everything halts and it's just vocals and handclaps carrying the song out. That break -- slightly jarring -- reminds the listener that although Thao is adept at being a bandleader, and The Get Down Stay Down prove themselves a sharp band throughout, it's her lyrical and vocal prowess that unites everything despite the varied instrumentation.
Nguyen has performed alongside acts with a wide variety of sounds and little audience overlap, although one is curious how fans of Xiu Xiu's damaged rock would respond to the sweeter sounds of Rilo Kiley on a shared bill (and vice versa). Those diverse live pairings underscore the balance Thao manages between two competing roles, the nervy singer-songwriter and the catchy folk-pop bandleader. On the album, I'm inclined to say the latter wins, although I found the former's intensity and natural charisma most appealing when I caught the group live in March. Admittedly, it's difficult to say whether a more frenzied sound would benefit the songs' arrangements, which coat some dark lyrics in a sweetness well worth consuming. Or, as Thao puts it on "Bag of Hammers:" "And as sharp as I sting, as sharp as I sing/It still soothes you, doesn't it?/Like a lick of ice cream".
Ben Van Houten is the Programming Director of The Bay Bridged.