The intersection between pop and rock music is one that dates back all the way to early stars like The Beatles and Elvis. With its jangling guitar chords and smooth drums, rock has long proved fertile ground for the earworm melodies of pop music. However, perhaps more exciting is when the tropes of such genres are combined, but then twisted into a form altogether more strange.
Odd, abrasive guitar pop is one of the most remarkably resilient genres to emerge this past decade, proving immune to the rapidly changing styles of contemporary music. Tune-Yards’ whokill and St Vincent’s self titled album sound like they could have been made in the same month, in spite of being released years apart. Both have a crunchy, crisp style of recording, and virtuosic guitar lines snaking around sneakily catchy pop melodies. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s A Man Alive is the newest entry in this ripe genre, and it proves itself a worthy entrant.
Pre-release single Nobody Dies primed the listener for Thao’s evolution since her last album, We Are Common. Where that record traded in folksy grooves and hopeful optimism, A Man Alive is sharp and hostile. The guitar on Nobody Dies alternates between sparkling strums and bassy thuds. Thao’s vocal melody is deceptively catchy, even as she lobs accusations of ignorance – “you act like nobody dies”. The post-chorus where all sound but vocals and claps drop out is achingly tense. Fool Forever sees Thao cynically dismissing someone (it could be either a city or a man) – “if I can believe in you I can believe in anything” – over brittle drums and pitched vocals. It’s pop music made technical and uncomfortable, and the effect is striking.
Even the more mellow songs are rendered tense and obscured. Give Me Peace features sweet guitars and xylophones in the bridge, but the entire track is caked in vinyl crackle, lending it the feeling of a vintage track left on a shelf too long. On Guts, in between the chiming chords and defiant lyrics, there’s a moment when Thao allows her vocals to become so quiet they are barely audible, and the listener is left struggling to discern what she has said.
Whilst sonically indebted to her forbears (Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus produced the record), A Man Alive is a fun, yet tense record, and it stands as a solid continuation of its indie guitar-pop tradition. The album sounds fantastic without sounding pristine, and every element feels carefully placed and considered. Whilst it is unlikely to be the record to bring Thao & the Get Down Stay Down to prominence, A Man Alive is a fantastic entry in their canon.