It's said that necessity is the mother of invention. Adversity may then be the father, that uncompromising taskmaster whose coaching you don't appreciate until later. One recent example of the latter: indie rocker Thao Nguyen, whose romantic breakup drives Know Better Learn Faster, her latest disc with her band, the Get Down Stay Down. The record abounds with reflections upon a relationship gone dysfunctional then gone, and it's her best effort yet.
Know Better Learn Faster isn't a downer listen, though. The disc mixes bittersweet reflection with off-kilter cheerfulness, which Nguyen characterizes as "almost inappropriately exuberant." Here the focus is on a vulnerability in the lyrics, and her words are so forthright it's harrowing. Without a hint of self-pity, "Body" finds her wailing, "What am I, just a body in your bed?/Won't you reach for the body in your bed?" Later, she coolly implores, "Everybody, please put your clothes back on/We must see what the trouble was for." Instead of vehemence, she finesses through the ache to hard-won wisdom. In that way, she's like a jazz singer, her phrasing suggesting old-school older-and-wiser divas Billie Holiday and Helen Merrill. Nguyen describes the record as being progressive, in terms of "moving [ahead] through a situation, rather than being stuck in it."
Progressing is something Nguyen does very well. She moved from her childhood home in Virginia to stints in New York City and Portland, Ore., eventually settling in San Francisco. She has also morphed from an acoustic songwriter on her 2006 debut, Like the Linen, to her latest, this full-fledged studio masterwork.
Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down paint heartwrenching stories with a copiously broad palette. Whereas most bands can be described in two- or three-word catchphrases, this one resists blithe categorizations. The eerie a cappella opener "The Clap" reveals gospel's impact on the songwriting, specifically Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke's Soul Stirrers. "Cool Yourself" has a swaggering New Orleans feel, and "When We Swam" is rich with intimations of doo-wop and '60s girl groups.
Nguyen credits a Virginia oldies station and a public library well-stocked with CDs for such sonic diversity. She adds that she shares a love of '60s soul, R&B, and Motown classics with bassist/keyboardist Adam Thompson and drummer Willis Thompson (no relation). "It's inherent in my writing," she says. The Lovin' Spoonful is also a palpable inspiration: Nguyen covered its hit "Did You Ever Have to Make up Your Mind?" as a 7-inch.
And what about that semicryptic cover art for Know Better Learn Faster? It's a party scene where Nguyen, brandishing a stick and peeking warily through a blindfold, stands before the remnants of a giant human heart–shaped piñata. Smashing the perilous papier-mâché symbol of devotion with the mighty stick of perspicacity? All breakups should be such a party.