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  • Rich Kassirer

CD Reviews: Thao Nguyen and Cinnamon Girl: A Neil Young tribute album

Thao Nguyen, “We Brave Bee Stings and All” From the opening moments of the first song on the album “We Brave Bee Stings and All,” you will be wondering is this something new from Regina Spektor or Cat Power? Has Erin McKeown or Feist gone off-kilter? And the answer will be no.

You are listening to Thao Nguyen.

That first song is called “Beat (Health, Life and Fire)” and begins with an exuberant drumbeat, acoustic guitar, banjo, and more as she sings “Beat my brow/Beat my chest/Beat the one who loved me the best.” OK, the melody sounds happy enough, but those aren’t exactly love-sweet lyrics. And that’s fine with us.

Thao’s take on relationships are not all warm and fuzzy, but her tunes will keep you moving to the beat. “Bag of Hammers” offers a perky guitar strum before it explodes into a full-on danceable tune.

Each song has its own personality and sound. “Swimming Pools” again features the banjo as a driving force, something we find incredibly fresh and appealing. In fact, the banjo seems to be showing up in many in pop songs (see sidebar). “Geography,” about a long distance relationship, offers a slinky, bluesy electric piano lead over her lyrics: “Oh, geography is going to make a mess of me.” And “Violet” is mostly just Thao and her creative guitar playing.

What’s nice is her songs never fall into predictability and surprising intricacies pop up with additional listening.

“Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity” We’ve talked in the past about our reluctance to tribute albums. But it was hard to ignore a 2-CD set of Neil Young songs sung by women. The set also benefits a good cause – Casting for Recovery, a breast cancer organization. What’s neat about this project is that, while there are a few recognizable names – Tanya Donnelly, Jill Sobule, Kristin Hersh, Lori McKenna – many of the singers were new names to us – Dala, Josie Cotton, Julie Peel to name a few – which gave us the opportunity to explore new artists. For the most part, the women, though not breaking any new ground with the songs, provide strong, rocking versions of Neil’s classic stuff. Among the highlights are the Canadian duo Dala’s harmonizing on “A Man Needs a Maid,’’ the Watson Twins’ slowed-down version of “Powderfinger,” Brooklyn band Luff’s wonderfully ragged “Tell Me Why,” and Sobule’s down-and-out version of the already down-and-out “Down by the River,’’ which is aided by the fabulous guitar work of X’s John Doe.

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