Thao Nguyen strikes us as a musician who’s used to being an outsider. Delicate and emotional, yet ferocious and unorthodox, she and her band, the agonistic-sounding The Get Down Stay Down, make eccentric folk-rock melds that refuse to conform to convention. She’s the kind of musician you’d half expect John Cusack’s Rob Gordon to namecheck in an alternate version of High Fidelity. Nguyen’s fourth album with the band, A Man Alive, is a sound clash that’s palatable, while maintaining its creator’s giddying urge for progress.
Nguyen penned the music and lyrics to all of the songs on her latest record. The Virginia-born singer and guitarist is one of the underrated women of music: she has the tact of Stevie Nicks and the vocal suppleness of Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano (and even a smidgen of MIA about her). This is a woman whose father walked out on her when she was 12, whose experience of witnessing a wet T-shirt competition led her to write a song about the objectification of women (Swimming Pools), and who has visited imprisoned women to inform her political messages.
She’s a warrior on the microphone, and A Man Alive is a belligerent assault on the apathetic. Starting off on the fringe of rock and initially feeling like a jam session with an enthusiastic soundboard programmer (Astonished Man), the first hint that there’s a method to this madness is The Evening. Over a wonky Styrofoam beat, Nguyen coos “I’ve got my baby back” in a manner reminiscent of Friends’ singer Samantha Urbani.
From there things only get more irregular: a left-field, electrified call to “fight for me in a modern day” (Departure); a fast-paced, multi-phrase set piece for a ferocious rap from Nguyen (Meticulous Bird); de tours of xylophones, virtual keyboards and choral vocals in the vein of The Go! Team; and an energetic crescendo of carefree folk-funk (Hand of God). As bizarre as the music can be, it’s also surprisingly sophisticated.
Previously, on 2013’s We the Common, Nguyen and company had a tendency to appear pretentious, even if they were simply being obsessively experimental. By contrast, A Man Alive feels more measured, more mature, but it’s still a head-scratcher structurally. Then again, that’s also part of the fun of a record that cartwheels between musical styles: you never know where it’s going to go next. Producer Merrill Garbus (aka Tune-Yards) – who also produced Nguyen’s 2011 collaboration with Mirah – has further helped Nguyen distil her experimental approach to songwriting, while ensuring the majority of songs are raw without being overbearing.
Offering up a clash of styles and colours in unexpected, but highly rewarding ways, A Man Alive is a refreshing listening. Nguyen is a magnet for the idiosyncratic and unusual (Joanna Newsom, Simone White). In many ways, she’s an art-house director whose cult productions will be destined to go no further than her open-minded initiates. But her latest effort deserves to be a breakout moment, because it pulses with a life that shows she is one of the most exciting female songwriters of our time.