Thao Nguyen, Unknown Mortal Orchestra 

Reviews: We the Common, II

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  • Thao Nguyen

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, We the Common

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We the Common is an album about wanting to be a human who tries and is grateful for the opportunity. It is about wanting to be better and closer to people,” Thao Nguyen says. And on her third full-length release, the Bay Area folk-rocker cherry-picks from across the genre spectrum—and we’re grateful for the opportunity to hear it. There’s a front-porch-banjo-picking sentimentality on “We the Common (For Valerie Bolden),” sweet country crooning with Joanna Newsom on “Kindness Be Conceived” and even rollicking rock licks and afro-beat percussion on “City.” In typical fashion, Nguyen is dichotomous—playful and analytical, nimble and brazen, free and tight—and, in typical fashion, that works in her favor. Standout tracks: “City” and “We Don’t Call.” (Ribbon Music, Feb. 5)

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II

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If chillwave and soul circa the late ’60s to early ’70s had a love child, conceived in the back of a velvet-lined touring van, the baby would be II, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second full-length album. The intimate, fragile songs are held together by greasy tube-amp crunch and irresistible, hedonistic vocals filled with swagger and soul. But there isn’t bombast for the sake of gaining attention. With 10 tunes nodding simultaneously to Led Zeppelin and Al Green, UMO offers the warmth of analog but isn’t afraid of dabbling in modern production techniques. Standout tracks: “So Good at Being in Trouble” and “Swing & Sleep (Like a Shark).” (Jagjaguwar, Feb. 5)

Jim James, Regions of Light & Sound of God

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Even before listening, many My Morning Jacket fans will have made up their minds to love this album for their adoration of Jim James. But if you aren’t drinking the juice, it’s just plain hard to get into; in fact, it took me nearly 10 listens—stuck on Interstate 80 in a snowstorm—to fully comprehend the mantra-like subtlety of James’ existential and religious musings on Regions of Light & Sound of God. The album seems like a fairly natural extension of MMJ’s recent self-hypnosis series—“songs designed to help the body, mind and soul to reprogram itself to be in its highest functioning order.” But beyond that, James plays every instrument on the nine tracks, which offer up a soft sonic landscape where the artist contemplates loneliness, demons and redemption. Standout tracks: “Dear One” and “Of the Mother Again.” (ATO Records/Red, Feb. 5)
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