Virginia’s Thao Nguyen hits up some winning folk-rock on We Brave Bee Stings And All. The Falls Church native rocks and rollicks with a country-twang, yet never loses her wry, wise approach to things. Now with a full backing band, The Get Down Stay Down, and soon to head out on tour with Xiu Xiu, this ‘Cat Power in cowboy boots’ looks set to play the country, all on the back of We Brave Bee Stings And All.
Bee Stings opens strong, perhaps a bit too strong, as the first third of the record threatens to overshadow the rest. Starter “Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)” delivers some twang-y folk-rock, but with a weary feminine vibe that really sets Nguyen apart. The following single “Bag of Hammers” is definitely single-worthy – catchy and upbeat, this winning, enjoyable piece is just a flat-out good time. “Big Kid Table” is slower, but plays almost like a kid’s song, like something from the Spongebob Squarepants Movie soundtrack (akin to Wilco’s excellent “Just A Kid”), but good that way – juvenile, innocent, and fun. There’s less giddiness on “Swimming Pools”, a pressing country-time jamboree with a feminist slant (reminiscent in attitude, and even vocals, of Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell – QRO interview).
Things slow up a bit after that on Bee Stings, with “Geography” (featuring guest duties from Laura Veirs) more sliding and wistful, yet still wry. That attitude holds up on the following folks-y pick of “Feet Asleep”; “Feet” was previously featured on The Sound The Hare Heard compilation (Bright Eyes, Southerly – QRO interview), and it was during the accompanying tour that Nguyen got The Get Down Stay Down. “Yes, So On and So On” is slow but sweet, a nicely different piece on the record, very pretty. But “Fear and Convenience”, despite its name, is a relaxed, country-fun jamboree, though not quite as fine as the more serious “Pools”.
If the first third of Bee Stings overshadows the middle, the last three tracks do stand out. “Violet”, unfortunately, doesn’t stand out for the right reasons: the country-twang is frankly too twee and cute, a danger Nguyen flirts with throughout the record. However, the following “Travel” makes up for it with a really nice country-drive, a definite ‘travel’ song, short & sweet. Finisher “We Go” plays a bit more ‘epic’ than Nguyen does elsewhere on the album, but also more intimate, a different side to her.
The poppy nature of We Brave Bee Stings And All would seem to indicate thinness in Nguyen’s work, but that’s not the case. She leavens her smart-serious outlook with winning folk-rock, especially the intricate guitar work. The lady’s got a wonderful air – all we gotta do is keep breathing.