Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s ‘Temple’ Serves As Bold ‘Experimental Alchemy’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down didn’t lose any of its creative steam in the four years since its last release. Temple, the fifth album by the San Francisco indie band, is a wonderfully eccentric collection of off-kilter pop rock that melds various eastern and western influences into its distinct sound. Following 2016’s excellent A Man Alive, the band is still in top form, delivering quirky music that is fresh and catchy, but not so idiosyncratic to lose accessibility. 

Temple is the most personal Thao & the Get Down Stay Down album, with songwriter Thao Nguyen opening up about her family life, her sexuality, and other issues that she usually covers with a cloud of ambiguity. 

The title track opens the album with an homage to Nguyen’s mother, a Vietnamese refugee, by commenting on the freedom so many fought and died for. “I lost my city in the light of day; thick smoke, helicopter blades,” Nguyen sings in her raspy voice, taking the perspective of her mother singing to her. The song contrasts a dancehall beat and pop synthesizers with a twangy guitar lick just as it contrasts images of war with words of hope and encouragement. “We found freedom; what will you do now? Bury the burden, baby, make us proud,” she sings.

Songs like “Rational Animal” and “Phenom,” two of the album’s best tracks, show a greater hip hop influence on the band’s music. The latter song utilizes repetitive musical hooks, Adam Thompson’s bouncing bass groove, and Nguyen’s rhythmic staccato singing to lend a defiant attitude to the song about dealing with shame and eventually pushing it aside. “I’ve been so politely at the bottom,” Nguyen sings softly before defiantly yelling “I am an old phenomenon.”  

“Pure Cinema” is perhaps Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s most simplistic song, a straightforward pop-rock song with a catchy synth-backed sing-along chorus. Even without the band’s atypical signatures, this entry-level Thao track is layered with meaning. “Bodies in motion just wanna belong somewhere,” she sings. The song finds Nguyen commenting on the importance of an anchoring family and the difficulty of touring without any feeling of home. “Won’t you stay awhile? Find your family, let them anchor you in the open sea,” she sings.

Some of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s best songs have been those with sparse instrumentation, with quiet, contemplative moments and great dynamic range. “Disclaim,” built around Thompson’s slow, jazz-influenced bassline and a repeated six-note flute line, exemplifies this technique well. 

Temple captures the band’s unique melding of styles: Asian with American, hip hop with rock, analog with digital, off-kilter with hummable. The band’s influences are combined not as a precise recipe, but as an experimental alchemy that rewards in unexpected ways.  

 

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