In my broad swath of college activism, one of the most interesting — and divisive — causes I took part in was centered on prisons. Depending on your ability to stomach radical politics, that can mean anything from prison reform to anti-police brutality, to the more revolutionary ideas like prison abolition in favor of ground-up rebuilding. So when I heard Thao Nguyen had been using her off-tour time to volunteer on behalf of the welfare of those incarcerated at Valley State Prison for Women, I was intrigued. It's a subject with lots of potential for conflict and compassion, but can be hard to communicate; great qualities for folk songs. One of the most central and important ideas in the cause is recognizing the humanity in all people, even the incarcerated. It's more of a challenge than you expect — you can see it in the incredulous reaction to the idea that there might be alternatives to prison as we know it. We're brought up with a common sense that dehumanizes and reduces prisoners, and it's that challenge that makes it fertile soil for provocative art.
For this background, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are aptly named. But their latest, WE THE COMMON, is far from a strict concept album. It's still anchored in Thao's jam-band dives into the slow burn of relationships, but the prison motif can be stretched to accomodate even this. In her songs of self-blame and guilt, she treats her baggage as a cell. The finger points always inward, like magnetic north on a compass, and its results are seen in lines scattered all across the album: "If by a third degree / you feel a guilt for me / then I've been a villain all my life" or "I come from regret / have I moved you yet? / don't let me touch you none." Then there's one of the highlight songs, "Move," a loose full bodied basher, where it erupts toward the end like a geyser: "Oh to be free!" she yells, as all her woes are made primal and universal. In a broad sense, you feel that Thao sympathizes with regret over past actions, being villainized, or the weight of binding ties. This is not to say a parallel is drawn. It does not say, in any way, that love is just like prison. But there's a commonality in the language that makes for useful tools of sympathy, not empathy.
The most relevant song on the album is the title track opener, "We The Common (For Valerie Bolden,)" which starts with a defense: "All they wanted was a villain / a villain / but all they had was me." The song is abstract enough to avoid a heavy hand as it offers challenges to anyone within earshot before asking for your understanding, and the title's frame widens: "Oh / how we the common / do cry"
To be clear, this isn't The Prison Album, or even A Prison Album. But bringing in my own personal background and experiences has been key to my enjoyment of this album, and I do enjoy it, about as much as I enjoyed her previous two Get Down Stay Down records. It's a definite, but incremental, evolution in just about every category, and as a pretty dedicated fan of her work, I've been mulling over how these changes play out.
Chief among the things that stand out is her writing style. On WE THE COMMON it trends more toward hard poetry instead of the endearing vernacular that got her previous work tagged with descriptors like, "quirky" and "playful." Lines like "Let not the hot blood boil in vain / All my insides do beg and push me try / bear some memory in my natural mind," would be outliers on her previous album KNOW BETTER LEARN FASTER, where only one song ("The Give") is stylistically comparable. It accomodates more complexity, but at the cost of concrete immediacy.
The Get Down Stay Down, despite lineup changes, is still a big jam session, except this time they've been outfitted with more tools that buzz and ring. Their melding with Thao's writing is more seamless than ever, never once slipping into the feeling that they're just underlying a previously written folk song, but actually helping shape the emotions. There's more harmony here between the inclination to tell a quiet story and the decision to play something you can dance to — because, remember, sad people dance too. I used to listen to her other albums to hear the lyrical hooks, but this time around the appeal is in some of the great arrangement. "Every Body" plays a mandolin like a steel drum and scribbles in a lo-fi synth. "We Don't Call" starts off like a stripped and screwed Motown backing band, until it gets dizzying with variety. Each section is a step up into a thicker, untrackable symphony of beak-pecked vibraphone and domino-dropping harpsichord.
Oddly enough, the folksiest song on the album, a Joanna Newsom guest spot "Kindness Be Conceived," is somehow the weirdest track. It's not a bad song — it just doesn't really work. Some contend that Newsom's voice is just too strong for duets, but it seems to me that her voice is just mismatched for this type of song. Thao would sound odd trying to pull of a uniquely Joanna Newsom melody like "Sadie," and I think this song shows it's true the other way around. Thao swallows words and sings in the range of speaking voices for the most part. Putting Joanna Newsom in these comparitively conservative structures puts too much attention on the peculiarities of her voice, turning simple sing-songing into something kinda scary. I would be down for that if it didn't seem like a misfire.
The album's best is the single "Holy Roller." The music has an in-your-ear clarity, straddling a line that makes organic instruments sound synthetic. But it's strongest suit is the brisk pace at which it plays; it's amusingly bouncy and rhythmic, mixed in with a determination for a meaningful life. It's a feel-good way of expressing something feel-bad. "I am a woman of leisure / I've been looking for the end of want," it goes, and it clicks to whatever mode you're in. The crisp banjo rolling is a constant source of wonder in an already inviting song of dancing, bobbing and singing along. If I wanted to show someone what Thao & The Get Down Stay Down is like, "Holy Roller" might be it: a sunny graveyard picnic, a rainbow during rain and, again, humanity behind bars. Little pockets of optimism in unexpected places.