Earnest, folk-adjacent indie rock with whispered vocals propagated in New England in 2008. I was a 21-year-old English major deeply enamored with this very sincere cottage industry, which is how I first became acquainted with the fierce guitar playing and cleverly relaxed lyrics of San Francisco singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen and her band, the Get Down Stay Down.
When I saw Nguyen open for Rilo Kiley, I’d been going to a lot of very chill shows—shows featuring bands that all sounded like they’d been rejected from the Garden State soundtrack, and had vaguely pastoral names even though they’d probably driven up from Brooklyn. These bands are probably still playing the Eastern Seaboard college circuit—if they’re still playing at all. But while I’m grateful for it, I’m not surprised that Nguyen’s found more longevity, because she’s also taken more risks. In a sea of forgettably mellow boys and girls clad in Rivers Cuomo glasses or brushing aside Cat Power bangs, Thao stood out. She imbued her indie folk with an air of specificity and a harder edge, in lyrics full of strange, Malkmus-level rhymes or urgent reminders to draw on one’s inner reserves, sometimes in a single line, as when she sings, “You’ve got to push all the doubt to the side of your mouth,” on “Swimming Pools” from 2008’s We Brave Bee Stings and All.
On her more recent endeavors, Nguyen’s dropped some of the instrumentation of her twee roots in favor of a more sophisticated sound without losing any of the dreaminess. You can hear the result on her social justice-oriented album from 2013, We the Common, and, most recently, 2016’s A Man Alive, which brings in propulsive rock hooks and amps up Nguyen’s weirder tendencies. It’s a jumpy, frenetic, infectious record, with off-kilter melodies and slant rhymes. There’s no whispering.