Thao with The Get Down Stay Down - "When We Swam" (Know Better Learn Faster)
The moments of oldness and of the past that are particularly striking in Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s new album Know Better Learn Faster are interesting when you know the wider social context. In these days of financial crisis and social instability, when all the old structures and methodologies are leaking at an incredibly accelerated rate, a certain nostalgia has been thematically creeping into culture. It’s not that musicians are specifically referencing this by looking back – though perhaps some most certainly consciously do – but rather that they, like writers and visual artists and everyday people, are inadvertently reflecting the larger cultural trends, simply by being participating members in that culture. The abject failure of neo-liberal and free market based capitalism and the way it’s decimated society for the past 40 years is a massive problem that weighs on everyone’s mind. Perhaps as a consolation prize of sorts, it’s made us a bit introspective – in an honest and humble way – and focused us on the modern beginning of this mess, the 1950s and early 1960s.
This turn also makes sense musically. The 1980s have been exhausted by the ironic day-glo miners and the late ‘60 and 1970s have been thoroughly excavated by everyone else. This isn’t to say that everyone involved in the post-modern nostalgia project is doing this cynically, but simply that once those eras were kind of used up, it makes sense that people would start investigating music from before the big cultural shift of the ‘60s.
Yo La Tengo’s turn towards ‘50s rock, R&B and northern soul, Stuart Murdoch’s new project God Help the Girl, and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down all make a lot of sense when seen in this light. What’s appealing about Know Better is not simply this nostalgic sensibility, but also the way in which that sensibility manifests itself as the music of the ‘50s plays off against the other styles that emerge out of their music, most predominantly, dance-punk. There’s never a sense that this is forced, either. Just like when Yo La Tengo moved in this direction, it seemed natural – natural to the point where it was almost expected – and for Nguyen, it’s the same feeling. Their various styles are integrated and naturally came out of the way the Get Down Stay Down coalesced.
Without knocking any specific band – and each person can certainly grasp out into the world and retrieve her own favorite example – there are certainly a lot affectations out there. Bands like trying on styles regardless of whether it organically emerges from their own life circumstances, and it’s really nice to find bands like Nguyen’s where the style is nostalgic but never insincere.