Published May 12, 2020On their fifth studio album, Temple, folk-tinged San Francisco singer Thao Nguyen and her band shift into a pared-back rock sound. And while the new release mostly holds its own, there's room for a little more zing in a few places.
First, the good news: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down have shown a consistent ability to evolve their sound from album to album, and Temple proves that this remains intact. Gone (mostly) is the hip-hop tinged sound that figured prominently on 2016's A Man Alive; also pared back is the clangy instrumental eclecticism that characterized the band on earlier releases, with Temple leaning away from folksy banjo sounds. Variety is the spice of life, and across her catalogue, Nguyen continues to deliver it.
Within its ten tracks, Temple also shows range, particularly in terms of mood. Opening track (and first single) "Temple" is an urgent-sounding barnburner, with dystopian lyrics inserting some drama, and a touch of twangy guitar to evoke a hint of vintage Thao. Flipping the script is the positively sweet "I've Got Something," a lullaby-esque ballad that proves that Nguyen can make a minimal sonic approach work with aplomb.
Elsewhere, Nguyen's lighter touch on Temple yields more mixed results. Coming of the back of two fairly pointed tracks ("Temple" and "Phenom"), "Lion on the Hunt" is a dreary three minutes that defies description (and not in a good way); a similar issue surfaces on "Disclaim," which aspires to be downtempo but comes closer to a dirge. Nguyen's neither-major-nor-minor melodic ambivalence combined with a quieter approach means that these tracks struggle to assert themselves.
But for each song where the more minimal sonic approach comes up short, there are places on Temple where it succeeds. "How Could I" builds momentum with a subtly driving beat, encapsulating a magnetic sense of romantic craving. Meanwhile, closing track "Marrow" layers vocal and a touch of synth around one consistent drumbeat to create a compellingly bittersweet yet beautiful piece of music. These moments make Temple worth hearing, in spite of moments where it lacks emotional direction. (Ribbon)