Sure, there's a party going down on the cover of Know Better Learn Faster. But the most telling detail in that picture is how Thao Nguyen is peeking out from under her blindfold, checking out the damage she's done.
Because as raucous as this album can sound, this is a set of songs very much about the aftermath of mistakes, and Nguyen spends a good chunk of the album mired in regret. But thankfully she doesn't drag her bright songs down to overcast dirges. Instead, the regretful Nguyen is just as volatile and infectious as the cutting-loose Nguyen, perhaps even more so. What makes the album work, and keeps it from seeming whiny, is not only the energetic charge of each song, but that Nguyen shoulders plenty of blame for her trouble and still has no problem lashing out at those who've done her wrong.
"If that's the way you want it, OK," she chants (along with her band, the Get Down Stay Down) to open up the album, defiant as ever as she launches into the next dozen tracks. And while she's anxious to leave the past behind in some places ("I should drink salt water to forget," she pines on "When We Swam"), in other spots she is demanding answers. In "The Body," she barks at a lover, "What am I, just a body in your bed?" And as frustration cracks her honeyed voice, you can feel her anger both at someone else and at herself for being complicit in her own deception.
The title track finds her at her most lost. She knows she can be self-sabotaging, but she can't find her own answer for it, so she demands that her lover should "know better and learn faster." The line is sweat-soaked with feeling, and the band surges behind her at breakneck speed, while a violin wails quietly, driving home the heartache buried in the frenzy.
Behind all the hashing out Nguyen does, burning some bridges and rebuilding others, the music surges with life. Her guitar work here proves Nguyen as one of the more underrated guitar players out there. The riffs are bright and textured, painted with broader strokes than the tight, dusty playing on We Brave Bee Stings and All, but still subtly complex and coated fittingly in a morning-after haze. And the Get Down Stay Down are the perfect rhythm section for her, stripped-down but buzzing with energy throughout.
As a result, Know Better Learn Faster is (with the exception of the last track, an awkward dance number called "Easy") an album full of radio-ready singles, each as infectious and heartfelt as the last. And through it all Nguyen is an earnest and irrepressible storyteller. She may have regrets, may go on to make more mistakes, but it doesn't sound like they'll slow her down any time soon.
Thao Nguyen has a comedian’s skill, that of “laughing through tears”—only it’s her music that laughs. Together with her band the Get Down Stay Down, she decks heartbreak in upbeat rhythms and plucky melodies. She knows that bitterness so delivered is palletable; take these lines from her popular song, "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"
With this new album, Nguyen lets the music match her mood. “Sometimes there’s not much room to mince words and music when you feel like shit,” she says on her label Kill Rock Star’s website. (She wrote these songs after a breakup.) Nguyen even brought in Andrew Bird on violin and the devastating (and devastatingly underrated) Laura Veirs on backup vocals. Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Spoon) produced the album, so expect the tears to gleam.
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