Thao & The Get Down Stay Down

WE THE COMMON

We the Common

There’s a great feeling in listening to music for the first time, to the work of an artist you don’t know, and hearing one random song that speaks right into you, even before you know what the words are really saying, before you may even know who the band is. You only have a feeling to go on, what the song might be about, and still it seems important to you somehow. I think such magic is about an artist’s ability to create something that speaks universally into the unusual, into the “vital,” in melody and words. It’s about saying something about the human spirit, the courage to be different, saying something that hasn’t been said quite that way before. So you dig, you go deeper.

We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)” by Thao Nguyen & The Get Down Stay Down, on her latest record, “We the Common” (Ribbon, 2013), is just such a song. It just popped for me, first time out, long before I knew that its stark refrain (“Oh, how we/The common/Do cry”) and dedication to Valerie Bolden focuses on the suffering of those serving life sentences in our modern prison system. It’s inspired by Nguyen’s feelings about Bolden in particular. It’s a terrible life, designed to be so, especially for women, for mothers (there are many layers to punishment, some not remotely compassionate or appropriate, some criminal in their own way). The song isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s not a reflection on crime. It’s about suffering. Nguyen met Bolden at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California (40 miles north of Fresno), in 2012. Nguyen (quietly) does volunteer work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

It’s chilling to think that Valerie Bolden, as of a story that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in February this year, has not been allowed to hear “We the Common” because the system forbids CDs from being sent to prisoners. Music is forbidden. I can only assume that the prison officials, by having a policy like this, are afraid of music. This isn’t a song or a record or an artist calling for rebellion. Instead, Nguyen calls for compassion.

I suppose a record like this makes Nguyen an activist musician in some people’s eyes. I hesitate using the word “activist,” and almost didn’t, because of that word’s potential “turn off” factor. We’re not living in an age when the general public wants to talk about prison reform. There’s a lot of righteous “They wouldn’t be in prison if they weren’t guilty, so they’re getting what they deserve” messages out there. I could argue that any record, any artist who speaks about human suffering in music (or in any way) is an activist. Maybe the real story here is about how words and music, even those about compassion, still frighten those in power. That’s the good news about the opening track on this record, as far as I’m concerned.

I think “We the Common,” the song, is a profoundly sad song that calls for nothing in terms of change. It’s a mother’s song, a statement about living in the fog of ongoing cruelty, and about being ground down by a very mean system. It’s a song that just explores what is. As for the entire record, all 12 songs, there’s nothing preachy here. Nothing maudlin or self-pitying. Just stories and observations about modern life written by an artist who has an eye for sharp images and emotional language. I see an almost playfulness, a sly quality to some of these songs, like “Holy Roller” or “Clouds for Brains,” songs with teasing lyrics that invite multiple interpretations. Musically speaking, these songs are rich and layered, with many textures and instruments woven together, hooky and lively. These are intelligent songs employing a poet’s metaphor. Poets almost always mean trouble for oppressors.

“We the Common,” the record, is a breakthrough moment for Nguyen. Her dedication to the years and the miles on the road touring, honing her stagecraft, along with two of her previous studio records, “We Brave Bee Stings and All” (2008), and “Know Better Learn Faster” (2009), and her interest in human rights have forged her into an artist who has learned fast how to produce energetic, socially charged, yet catchy songs. Also, the duet Nguyen performs with Joanna Newsom seems so natural, like the two artists’ voices have spiraled together on many collaborations.

It seems like everywhere you turn these days you find a banjo, which can be fatiguing. (I’ve never been a huge fan of banjo, but don’t hate it.) However, in addition to banjo, Nguyen’s multi-instrumental skills also extend to piano and guitar. Her most important instrument, though, her voice, sits central to every song. Lyrically speaking, I think Nguyen has been a strong writer from her first record in 2005. So the big changes, with most recent studio release, to my ear, are in the melodies she’s crafted for this latest effort, and her intensified sociopolitical undertones.

This record is the perfect place to meet Thao Nguyen and her band. It’s a new chapter about an artist who will be a big story in music in the years to come. It’s a perfect time to get in on the ground floor. And if you have time, check out the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. They say every civilization should be judged on how it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens. Based on Valerie Bolden’s life in prison, we have a long way to go.