In Brief: That’s four 5-star albums running for Teng. She is either (a) an indisputable genius, or (b) setting me up for massive disappointment later in life.
I just don’t know how Vienna Teng does it. You’d think I would have jinxed her after slapping five-star ratings on three albums in a row (and honor I’ve given to no other artist in the known universe) and gushing about how relentlessly creative she was. She might not have the longevity to win my all-time top spot as “favorite artist, period” due to only have been around on a national level since about 2002. But her increasingly inventive storytelling and poetry, and the odd instrumental touches that have expanded her palette since those early days of channeling Sarah MacLachlan or Tori Amos on the piano have ensured that she’s a unique voice who can’t just be put into a box as “the Chinese version of so-and-so” or whatever well-meaning but limiting tags critics might try to place on her. If I had to make a short list of my favorite female artists of all time, Vienna would definitely be at the top of that list. (Other than my relatively newfound fascination with Bjork, I can’t even tell you who else I’d put on such a list for sure.) And all of the above made my expectations for Vienna’s new album, Inland Territory, so massive that I sort of feared I was overdue for a little disappointment.
I’m still waiting for that disappointment to kick in, because Vienna has yet to do anything other than fascinate me. She apparently decided after 2006’s Dreaming Through the Noise that the hushed, moody “chamber pop” sound of that record, while it produced perhaps her most consistent set of songs yet, would only take her so far. So here, three years later, comes an astonishing expansion of her sound into an album that she describes as more of a “mixtape” album than a “mood” album. This means that musically, it’s all over the map – never betraying the overactive imagination behind the lyrics or the delicate alto with which she presents those thoughts and unexpected points of view to us, but definitely throwing curveballs that even a seasoned fan like myself would never expect on a Vienna Teng record. There are splashes of electronica here, little folksy influences there, and even traces of snarling rock attitude at one point or another. All of this somehow manages to co-exist alongside the classical flourishes and occasional minimalist tendencies that have been with her since 2002’s Waking Hour – an album which now appears quaint and boxed in by comparison, and yet which has not diminished in its value one single bit since I first fell in love with it.
There’s a slight downside to this “try anything once” approach, of course – one might accuse Vienna of trying on a lot of musical hats and not really committing to a direction. There are times when I miss the cohesive, quiet mood of Dreaming Through the Noise and wonder if Inland Territory‘s songs really fit next to one another. In that sense, it’s more of a mish-mash of ideas like Warm Strangers was, and yet it seems to make more of a unified statement than that album does. Fictional characters and dramatized versions of friends and family members seem to have crawled out of the woodwork as nameless places between the Pacific and the Atlantic presumably piqued Vienna’s interest during her relocation from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York in between albums. (Aw, man. Does that mean no more residencies in little Hollywood clubs? Dang.) I don’t mind it because I’m in love with nearly all of these ideas. But I’ll admit that Dreaming is still a better album, purely taken song for song. For an artist of Vienna’s caliber, this means the difference between an A and an A plus, and the fact that I’m only giving this album an A probably represents my own personal quirks more than any failing on Vienna’s part. Your mileage may vary, but we’re both still driving hybrids. (Golly, that was a stupid analogy. Vienna makes much better ones.)
1. The Last Snowfall
If this were the last slow curling
Of your fingers in my palm
If this were the last I felt you breathing
How would I carry on?
It’s interesting how Vienna can start off with one of her mellowest songs (see “Feather Moon” or “Blue Caravan”) and yet have it serve as the perfect hook to draw you into the album. This one is no exception, using the the crackle of an old record player (oldest trick in the book when you want to evoke a feeling of nostalgia, but hey, it works) and a Fender Rhodes to usher in the quiet, comfortable ambiance of a chilly winter’s day enjoyed from the safety of a warm cabin. It’s a song about endings – Vienna says a lot with a little since there are only four lines apiece in three verses. She’s pondering what feelings and words she’d conjure up to do the moment justice if this was the last time she ever saw snow, or held the hand of a loved one who is presumably getting along in their years. That she manages to create such a simple and heartfelt song while playing it in 5/8 time makes it intriguing enough, but when she brings in the angelic mini-choir of verses for a chorus that ascends to the high heavens without saying a word, that’s when it hits me that this is a work of genius.
2. White Light
Heading home, you swear that you’ll be good
Do everything you should, you know the facts
But in the morning, you’re back to petty needs
Tragedy recedes to photographs…
What’s this – synthesized electronic effects? Upbeat percussion? Electric guitars? Has Vienna abandoned her usual delicate touch and decided to record something angry for a change? We haven’t heard that sort of attitude from her since Warm Strangers’ “Hope on Fire”, and even that one sounded more optimistic than ticked off. Now I don’t want to oversell this oddly radio-friendly track as some sort of a mammoth rocker, because Vienna’s just never been that conventional. But it’s “rock” compared to her usual output, and however you choose to classify it genre-wise, that chorus has got teeth. Here Vienna rips into a crowd full of hypocrites, a finger-wagging institution full of people who would easily out one of their own for a crime that the rest of them don’t want to admit they’re also guilty of. It could be a church, it could be a country, it could be a company that helped to screw our economy over. It’s opened ended and you get to decide who takes the blame. But that question, “If you knew it was wrong, why did you do it?” is tough to ignore, especially when Vienna turns it back on herself and admits, “It feels so good to feed a habit.” I’m not sure what’s up with the loungy synths during the bridge – it feels like there might be cause for some menacing guitar work there instead, but then Vienna seems to have a penchant for defying expectations. This one could potentially hit harder with different production choices, but it still stings where it needs to.
I know the border lines we drew between us
Keep the weapons down, keep the wounded safe…
You know what, we’re two tracks into the album and I haven’t heard Vienna’s old trusty friend the piano! Ah, there it is – she pulls out the stops when it’s most called for, immediately captivating me with a jaw-droppingly beautiful, cascading melody, much like the ones that characterized a lot of her earlier work. On Waking Hour, a song like this would have been content to let the piano lead the way with no other interference, but not here. See, this is a song about war, so it’s got an appropriate “drum march” feel to it as the song builds toward its climax, as well as some other exotic but subtle instrumental touches (is that a marimba or am I imagining things?). This is not a political war, nor is it a religious one. It’s a personal war fought between two lovers, perhaps a divorced couple trying to manage life after tearing their family in two. They’ve realized how easy it is to hurt each other and they’ve come to a sort of “armistice”, but Vienna’s masterful description of the situation makes it clear that she felt so much more alive when they were together, even if they were constantly fighting. It’s a question of how much they lost in the attempt to make peace. Producer Alex Wong chimes in for an understated but appropriate duet vocal near the end, sounding almost dispassionate as he sings “You go home, I’ll stay here, seasons keep on marching”, interweaving with Vienna’s chorus. I thought “Gravity” was a bit of a tear-jerker back in the day, but man, this is just heartbreaking.
No, it’s not regret
Just remembrance is all of how close we had come
The war almost won
But I sent up our flag and moved on…
We’re back to the Fender Rhodes again. I’m not sure I like that it’s used so heavily at the beginning of the album, because for whatever reason, this is the song that stands out to me the least. It’s not a bad song by any stretch – Vienna hasn’t written anything that struck me as iffy since “The Atheist Christmas Carol” five years ago – but it does feel a bit dry. Perhaps that’s the point, since it’s about a flat place filled with farmland from one horizon to the next, one which she may have crossed on her coast-to-coast move. A place which people probably pass through more often than they intentionally travel to. The dull landscape is compared to the aftermath of ab abandoned relationship, one which Vienna seems introspective about, but at the same time she’s not terribly torn up over it. As she explains, it’s not regret, just remembrance. Maybe she’s just being stoic. Maybe the music has to be subtle because she doesn’t want it to read as a play on the emotions. Whatever the case, it’s beautifully sung and performed with the kind of restraint that you’d expect from a veteran artist. But I do feel like some unidentifiable thing is missing here.
5. In Another Life
Side by side, we marched on Tiananmen
Turned our own parents in for hoarding rice
And in the Great Leap forward
We crawled on our bellies and died…
Vienna clearly felt the freedom to switch genres at will with this record, and this song is one of the most striking examples of that, bringing in a Dixie-inspired horn and woodwind section apparently because she was feeling a little whimsical. I like the whimsy – it offsets the rather fatalistic story of a pair of star-crossed lovers who continually die and are reborn into hopeless situations where they seem to narrowly miss meeting each other or escaping their sad fate – first coal miners trapped in a cave, then militants on the wrong side of a Chinese revolution, et cetera. I feel like the song would be right at home in a speakeasy nearly a century in the past if not for the anachronisms that keep it from being tied down to any one place and time. It’s a strange and beautiful experiment, and a fun bit of role playing for a woman who seems to give birth to new fictional characters from her own grey matter on a daily basis.
6. Grandmother Song
Oh girl, it’s too heavy a load
Your mama and your baba, they are worried souls
How you gonna raise a family when you’re on the road
With some tattooed boy with a guitar?
Every now and then, the characters in Vienna’s songs are 100% non-fictional, and she makes no attempt to hide this fact. The early songs “Daughter” and “Say Uncle” are perhaps her most obvious examples, but this time around she dedicates an entire song to a rambling lecture from her grandmother. And this ain’t your grandmother’s sensitive piano ballad. In another surprising move that can only be described as genius, Vienna goes the acapella-spiritual-meets-hillbilly route for this one, singing along to nothing but the handclaps and occasional hoots, hollers, and melodic interjections of the day players gathered in the studio. A lively fiddle punctuates the proceedings from time to time, but the bulk of the song is produced by the human body, and what an exhilirating and humorous song it is! It’s also an understanding song – for every cultural mandate and dig at her chosen lifestyle that Vienna recounts, there’s also a nugget of wisdom, which shows that Vienna can tell granny means well. You’ve probably gotten a similar lecture from your parents or grandparents if you are the descendant of recent immigrants who had to suffer through more than you or I could ever conceive just to land on American soil. Writing a song that gripes about or makes fun of old fuddy-duddy relatives bossing you around would be simply amusing, but it takes insight to write a song that actually demonstrates love and understanding for this person while in the process of having a few chuckles at her expense.
7. Stray Italian Greyhound
This sudden burst of sunlight, and me with my umbrella
Cross-indexing every weatherman’s report
I was ready for the downslide, but not for spring to well up
This feeling calls for everything I can’t afford…
“Oh no, not now”, Vienna nearly whispers after the celebration from the previous song dies down. Her voice and the piano are so quiet that it almost seems like she’s set out to write the tiniest, timidest little song that she can muster. Little did I know that it would soon erupt into a busybody pop song about the kind of optimism that can’t be silenced, not even by a hardened cynic who almost doesn’t want to give hope another chance. It’s an ADHD kind of optimism, a “love that won’t sit still”, and she’s a bit baffled about what to do with it. You can take it to be about falling in love when you’re absolutely sure you don’t deserve another chance at it (in which case the lyrics remind me a bit of Ron Sexsmith‘s “Hard Bargain”), or you can take it to be about the changing face of politics in America (since it was reportedly inspired by an Obama rally that Vienna attended – I should note that “inspired by” and “about” are two very different things, though). Either way, it’s infectious once those peppy drums and that swarming string section kick in. You want to tell it to get out of your head and leave you alone, but it simply won’t.
Lead me now, I understand
Faith is both the prison and the open hand…
Another upbeat tune surfaces here, this time with a more dramatic flair as the drums tumble and crash and Vienna leads the way with a pounding piano melody, once which hearkens back to the confidence of “Harbor” but plays it a lot straighter in terms of the rhythm. This feels like a song about a paradigm shift – a woman who has resisted the concept of faith now seems to be captivated by it, but at the same time also scared. What it means when she claims “Let me be your Augustine” is Greek to me – it could refer to a Catholic saint or it could just be the name of a woman she admires. There actually isn’t as much to this song as I wish there was – it feels like it rolls by rather quickly, which I suppose makes sense for more of a pop-oriented song, but it means that I never spend much time lingering on what it all means before it fades away and we’re on to the next track.
9. No Gringo
Mother says, with luck
We’ll sleep under a roof tonight
Father says, in the truck
We’ll be crushed in tight…
Here’s another track that has me wondering, “Seriously, where does she come up with this stuff?” It’s one thing to write about a political issue from the perspective of someone right smack in the middle of it (such as the gay couple getting married in “City Hall” or the flood victim in “Pontchartrain”), but to then turn that issue around into a sort of alternate history or dystopian vision of the future is quite another. Vienna does that here, writing a song about illegal immigration that doesn’t necessarily have an agenda in terms of what side of the fence it wants you to be on (pun intended), but flipping the viewpoint so that an American family, impoverished and clean out of options in their native Chicago, enters Mexico illegally in an attempt to find work and a way to feed their children. It’s like The Grapes of Wrath, set a century later. Vienna plays the daughter, sadly wishing goodbye to her home as the miles roll by, describing America’s past life at the top of the food chain in such a way that makes you wonder if this is a frightening future that we could almost reach out and touch. As the piano rolls along and the sad story is unveiled, she and her family are confronted with racism, and signs are posted that simply say, “No Gringo”. Rough translation: “We don’t want foreigners here taking our jobs”. During the bridge, the music spontaneously erupts into a frantic, South-of-the-border inspired breakdown, in which she gets to try a little Spanish on for size as she insists they’re not illegal immigrants and pleads for her family not to be deported, before settling back into a coda that features a banjo, of all things, playing in 5/8 time as a counterpoint to the regular 4/4 rhythm of the song. Whew. That’s almost too much genius for a single song to contain.
I’ve done this many times before you
Old Shanghai, New Orleans
Amsterdam and Mumbai
Strange new creatures to scavenge your pores…
For this slow, dark, haunting song, imagine what it would be like if Vienna were to sing “Pontchartrain” from the point of view of the ocean. I won’t compare this song to that one on a musical level, but it does have that same sort of “weight” to it, even if it’s a bit more conventionally melodic and less sprawling than Dreaming Through the Noise’s unsettling show-stopper. As solemn notes from the piano slowly trickle in like the ominous start of a rainstorm, Vienna seems to mock humanity from the great depths, informing them of times that she’s wiped out their cities and hinting that she will lash out at them again someday. Much like a few of the songs on the “Water” disc from Thrice‘s Alchemy Index, this seems to be a reminder that man’s progress and hubris are no match for the force of an angry sea. This is the anti-“Drought” – similar in musical style but a polar opposite in terms of meaning.
Sing me a love song, dear
What good has the news ever done me?
Come on, it’ll never happen here, oh no
We are not some third world country…
I know I’ve used the word “genius” several times in this review already, but this song is just so fiendishly inventive and startlingly brilliant that MY HEAD ASPLODE. The past two albums have featured a gripping song that stared death in the face and darkly pondered its implications as the penultimate track (or listed track in the case of Warm Strangers), but this one is something else entirely. It’s frantic. It’s messy. It’s disturbingly upbeat, its chorus tripping all over itself as Vienna’s companion tries to assure her, “It’s just the radio, darling, and your runaway imagination”. My God, are those spoons being played? What’s with that wacky percussion? The verses seem to take us from the chorus’s detached perspective right into the middle of a war zone, as Vienna plays the role of a triage nurse trapped in the middle of downtown San Francisco after a terrorist bomb goes off and all hell breaks loose. This might be an extension of America’s disturbing fictional future as described in “No Gringo”, or it might be an all-too-possible reality in the here and now that most of us just plain don’t want to discuss. How can you blame us? We got so tired of being tense and always on our guard after 9/11 that some of us simply had to tell ourselves the lie that “This stuff only happens elsewhere” to allow ourselves to sleep at night. Vienna does just that here – she abruptly switches the channel in the middle of the song, briefly turning it into something relaxed and slightly jazzy and insisting, “We are not some third world country”, before that odd metallic clanging snaps her back into reality and suddenly she’s back to assigning colored ribbons and counting the dead. This is Vienna at her most experimental, her most confrontational, and ironically, her most catchy. It is the peak of artistic accomplishment on an album already packed with more highlights than a single album should be allowed to contain.
12. St. Stephen’s Cross
Through the perforated night she ran
Her fingers slipping from his hand
And she breathed in freedom before daylight tread…
We end on a relaxed note, with a gentle but percussive song that plays around with its fluid rhythm a bit, lingering in the celebration over a war being won and a wall coming down and a crowd rushing toward freedom – a historical victory that causes a temporary tragedy as two lovers or family members or whoever they are become separated and eventually reunited. (That interpretation may be a bit off, but it’s the end of the album and Vienna tends to make my lyric decoding skills work overtime. In any event, I’m more wrapped up in the music than the lyrics here.) The “chorus”, if you could call it that, is completely instrumental, a simple but majestic piano break in between each verse, which sort of mirrors the structure of “The Last Snowfall”, if not the mood. Vienna might have overindulged herself slightly with the odd, dissonant racket in the background during this song’s bridge, but other than that she pulls this one off with finesse, all the way to the brief little acoustic guitar flourish that finished it off. With all due respect to “Recessional”, which appears to be a fan favorite, I’m gonna have to see that this is Vienna’s best album closer thus far.
I’m sure that by this point I’ve overused the words “genius”, “brilliant”, “creative”, “inventive”, etc. and I’ve probably run the point into the ground that I’m captivated by this woman’s imagination. It’s difficult to be objective when I’m struck at almost every turn by ideas on both the musical and lyrical fronts that I wouldn’t expect most reasonably talented singer/songwriter to come up with more than once or twice per album. Hopefully I’m not overselling it – Inland Territory may be an acquired taste to fans of more conventional pop music new to Vienna’s work, and those who have indulged in the genre-bending deep end of modern music may find this too conventional simply due to the fact that there are structured songs with largely singable melodies. Having set those boundaries, I’ll say that for an artist in the singer/songwriter vein, I simply can’t come up with anyone else who has managed to impress me more consistently with a wellspring of ideas that are not only thoughtful, but also extremely well-executed. She’s done this for four albums running now. I think some superlatives are deserved here.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Last Snowfall $2
White Light $1.50
In Another Life $1.50
Grandmother Song $2
Stray Italian Greyhound $1.50
No Gringo $2
St. Stephen’s Cross $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.