Review: Thao with The Get Down Stay Down – Know Better Learn Faster
(Posted at TheFourOhFive.com)
I’ll admit, the moment I heard the name ‘Thao and The Get Down Stay Down’, I was immediately put off – for me, the band name’s rousing cutesiness recalled either a landfill, achingly twee indie-pop band, or one of those awful, scene-y emo pop bands with silly hair and unnecessary punctuation in their song titles (see Hadouken!)
I will now admit that I was deadly wrong – in the crowded indie-pop market,’ Know Better Learn Faster’ is an unexpectedly mature work, and one that should win over many.
‘Know Better Learn Faster’ kicks off with the bluesy, a-cappella ‘The Clap’, which recalls rising blues stars She Keeps Bees. Sadly, ‘The Clap’ is brief, and melts into the feverish ‘Cool Yourself’, which finds Thao wailing ‘I will not ask anymore/ I cannot ask anymore’ over motown-esque ‘woahs’ and slick, twangy guitar, and ‘When We Swam’ mixes a Northern Soul-style melody over Thao’s plaintive lyrics – ‘Once I arrived, but you would not receive me’.
As ‘Know Better Learn Faster’ progresses, it becomes pretty clear that this is a breakup record, and Thao’s press release confirms as much; “A few of these are just straightforwardly sad. Sometimes there’s not much room to mince words and music when you feel like shit”.
And Thao spends much of ‘Know Better Learn Faster’ feeling like just that – ‘Goodbye Good Luck’ sees Thao spouting the compelling line:’ We asked our lovers to break us, so we can be of use’, and the superb title track – featuring swooning violin from Andrew Bird – moans ‘I can’t do the real thing/ I hurt all my feelings’. Sometimes Thao’s romantic revelations verge a little on the unpleasantly twee side – ‘Easy’ opens with an excruciating spoken-word from Thao, lisping ‘Sad people dance too!’, and the line ‘We have sad sex/ We move steady to forget/ We swear on our happening lives’ comes awful close to a teenager’s diary entry – but, equally, they sometimes strike a remarkable clarity – later on ‘Easy’ Thao pouts ‘I don’t get to leave, cos you left first’ – but mostly, Thao’s lyrics float dreamily along the slick production and relentlessly cheery guitars without weighing it down too much, striking a perfect balance between being earnest and being downright embarrassing.
Thao’s voice is a key part of this record – the girl has been blessed with wondrous pipes, surely, but on ‘Know Better Learn Faster’ she seems slightly unsure of how to use them – this produces varying effects; at her best, she embodies the petulance of a young Cat Power, at her worst, she caterwauls like a histrionic Florence Welch – but any slight vocal malfunctions Thao may have are more than made up for in ‘Know Better Learn Faster’s’ glossy production – the album was produced by Decemberist’s and Spoon producer Tucker Martine, and it’s predictably snappy, especially the banjo fluttering in and out of ‘The Give’, and the pummeling, DIY percussion in ‘The Clap’.
There’s something slightly absurd about ‘Know Better Learn Faster’s downheartedness – as Thao spits out the most heartbroken lyrics, the Get Down Stay Down reel cheerily around her, almost like a sad clown – and by the end of it, we’re backing Thao to get through her tumultuous break-up. ‘Know Better Learn Faster’ ends on a note of resignation; album closer ‘Easy’ sees Thao admitting ‘I know the stories of those before me… I make it easy to stop’.
In short, this record is an exhilarating,lovelorn indie-pop record that’s just as likely to make you dance as it is whip out the Kleenex – the record is perfectly summed up in ‘Goodbye Good Luck’: ‘We mined/ We bared/ We hoped you cared/ We hope to see you next time…’