After spending most of her 20s touring like mad and cranking out ragged, playful indie pop, Thao Nguyen settled down in San Francisco for a year’s respite. The break from the typical tour-to-studio-to-tour grind gave her time to explore the city, work with nonprofits (like the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, through which she met track one’s dedicatee, Valeria Bolden) and take a more measured tack toward her writing process. The result is palpable. We The Common is a thoughtful, provocative build on all the band’s strengths of easy-flowing melodies, big hooks and inventive arrangements.
Like all of Nguyen’s work, the record boasts angular guitar lines, percussive crescendos and husky vocals. This time though, producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Explosions in the Sky and Bill Callahan) pulls new threads to the surface: distorted shouts, banjo rolls, swaggering horns, punchy bass lines. The textures range from bustling and complex (“City”) to markedly restrained (“Clouds for Brains”). Title track, “We the Common,” plays at both ends, rolling a droning banjo into a jolly chorus celebration of how “we the common do cry.” “Holy Roller” is an almost jazzy send-up of folk-pop. “Kindness be Conceived,” a duet with Joanna Newsom, puts the two voices with acoustic accompaniment and stops.
“Slowly, we all lay down,” she sings on the album closer, “Age of Ice,” a sweet release after 30 minutes of restless invention. Thao may be mellowing into her new homebase, but she’ll never lose her sense of adventure.