There’s a video on YouTube I want you to see. It’s a clip of a recent performance by Thao Nguyen, singing the title song of her new album, “We the Common." But unlike the album version, which features her band the Get Down Stay Down, this is her solo, playing banjo and singing through a battery-powered megaphone, at a protest rally outside the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The song is dedicated to Valerie Bolden, a life-term inmate Nguyen befriended while doing outreach programs there.
And clearly, Nguyen is fired up and wants you to be, too. When she gets to the whooping, wordless chorus, you may well want to whoop right along, just as if she were Pete Seeger or Joan Baez.
But neither it, nor anything else on the album, is what you’d call a protest song. And even removed from that video’s context, this is compelling -- and a fine kick-off to a highly engaging, highly distinctive album by a talent who, after building a buzz on the West Coast indie scene for a few years now, is really hitting her stride. No wonder she’s whooping.
The music is folk-y, in a loose sense, but not folk -- it’s more about exuberance and spirit, not any particular style. And the politics she professes, by and large, are personal. Take the song “Every Body,” in which she sings: “Save my bed for the big ideas.”
The real appeal of Thao Nguyen is that she is, well, Thao Nguyen: an individual, even an eccentric, in the best sense of the word. And here she gets help from kindred, and hard to define spirit Joanna Newsom, the harp-playing sprite who joins Nguyen on the country-ish “Kindness Be Conceived,” the two distinctive voices bringing out the playfulness in the almost Shakespearean lilt of the lyrics.
It's enough to bring to life every one of Nguyen’s, well, not whims but…okay, whims. With shifting combinations of guitars, horns, vibes, strings, keyboards and, mmm, whatnot, she and this crew can go from the Black Keys-like guitar stomp of “City” to the horn-slathered folk-funk of “We Don’t Call."
The thread through it all might best be captured in the song “Human Heart.” That’s what powers “We the Common." It’s passion. It’s engagement. It’s sensuality. It's...the truly uncommon Thao.