One of the nicer finds in recent years from the Pacific Northwest’s Kill Rock Stars label has been Thao Nguyen (QRO interview). On debut LP We Brave Bee Stings and All (QRO review), her up-cheer antics were leavened with a wryness that allowed her to use kid’s styles for adult means. Backed up by The Get Down, Stay Down, the Fall’s Church, Virginia native quickly graduated from opening gigs to headlining. However, as undeniably enjoyable as she is, there’s a ceiling to what Nguyen can do in this vein, as well as a floor, making her follow-up release, Know Better Learn Faster, definitely good, but not great.
After the sub-minute hoot-intro “The Clap”, the up-cheer & wry Nguyen returns with “Cool Yourself”, and that’s still her strongest side. Maybe not as out-and-out catchy as Bee Stings‘s “Bag of Hammers” or “Travel” (QRO video), the listener still can’t help but enjoy pieces like “Cool”, the up-stomp “Body”, or “Fixed It!”. Yet Nguyen also delves into a sadder side numerous times on Know Better, starting with the title track/single. While that piece is made more interesting by the addition of almost Ken Burns’ Civil War-like violins, the sad-twang of “Oh No” or stripped-sad of “But What of the Strangers” aren’t quite as memorable as the happier Thao.
But there also isn’t that much space in quality between them, either. Thao Nguyen’s charm carries Know Better Learn Faster just like it did for We Brave Bee Stings and All, whether the stripped alt-folk of “The Give” or more somber closer “Easy”. “Easy” is introduced by Nguyen saying in soft tones, up close to the mike, “Sad people dance too”, and she is trying to widen her sound to sadder feelings on the new record, but it’s still based in her charm and enjoyable, if relatively simplistic, style. That keeps the record from ever dipping into weakness, but needs a little more to vaunt it into greatness.
MP3 Stream: “Cool Yourself”