In Brief: More than an hour’s worth of brilliant live performances by a gifted ensemble. My only complaint is that stuff was left out despite there being room on the disc.
I won’t beat around the bush. Vienna Teng is my favorite songwriter of all time. She’s the rare artist who I’ll jump at the opportunity to see live every single time she’s in town (which is unfortunately a lot less now that she’s enrolled in business school somewhere in Michigan), and whose work I’ll get excited about even when it’s just a little something to tide fans over, instead of a bona fide new album. I’ve been known to hunt down live clips on YouTube of obscure songs that I’ve never seen her perform live, comparing one arrangement to the next as she never seems to bring the same group of musicians with her on two consecutive tours. It’s rare that I think an artist’s live recordings actually measure up to their studio recordings, and while I might still prefer the fully controlled atmosphere of the studio even in Vienna’s case, I’m generally quite excited to see how imaginative she gets when having to reinterpret her piano-based songs in a live setting, many with unusual instrumental parts and/or sonic elements that are difficult to reproduce in front of an audience. In her early days, she was mostly confined to solo piano eprformances, but as her fanbase has grown and her touring budget along with it, she’s perfected the “chamber pop ensemble” by bringing a handful of string players out on tour as well as talented percussionists and multi-instrumentalists, as the occasion calls for. Staples of her most recent tours have been drummer Alex Wong, who produced her most recent album Inland Territory, and a loop pedal that Vienna uses to great effect when a song would otherwise require human cloning to get the job done. Bring cellist Ward Williams along for part of the ride, and these are the elements that feature most prominently in Vienna’s first full-length live recording, The Moment Always Vanishing.
The songs on Moment were all recorded in San Francisco in December of 2009, a sort of tribute to Vienna’s old Bay Area stomping grounds before her big move. Like most respectable live albums, this isn’t a glossy endeavor featuring copious amounts of overdubbing – simply the best performances culled from two nights’ worth of live shows. Unsurprisingly, Inland Territory dominates the setlist here – it’s one of my favorite albums from a discography that is absolutely rock solid, and yet, it’s the few peeks back into history that offer the most exciting insights into who Vienna was back then vs. who she is now. Some of these arrangements have changed radically over the years, and it’s because of this that I find myself wishing for more representation from that meek debut album, Waking Hour, and its follow-up Warm Strangers. Most distressing is the inclusion of only one track from Dreaming Through the Noise, which thus far I’d consider to be her magnum opus. That said, I’ve heard those old albums live in almost their entirety, and I’ve only been present to hear a little over half of Inland Territory played live, so I shouldn’t be too picky. Suffice to say that if you know Vienna’s latest album, you mostly know what you’re going to get with these arrangements. If you know her old stuff and haven’t caught up with her in a while, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Despite my nitpicks with the tracklisting, what I love about The Moment Always Vanishing is how unconcerned it is with image management. Listen to any of Teng’s albums and you’ll get an impression of a woman lost in deep thought, maybe even get fanciful visions of Vienna as some sort of mystical siren tapping into some otherworldly ability to see through the eyes of unexpected fictional characters. The live setting brings our perceptions of Vienna back down to Earth, thanks to many bits in between songs where she offers a peek into the songwriting process, makes self-deprecating jokes, or banters with her bandmates. At times, she’s lovably nerdy. Music is serious business for this woman, as demonstrated by her commitment to never write the same thing twice – and yet she doesn’t take herself particularly seriously. And while I always question the replay value of lengthy intros/outros in which the artist speaks to the audience on a live album (they interrupt the flow even in the best of situations), I do think it’s valuable to have some of that here, to place Vienna the person in context with Vienna the artist. You can easily feel like she’s just hanging out with a few friends in your living room. (Or at least the tiny club or coffeehouse down the street.)
So why all this gushing and only four stars? Two things, mainly. Number one, as much as I appreciate Alex Wong’s skill on the drums, and think his voice works in the context of his own band, The Paper Raincoat, he can sound a bit weak as a backup singer for Vienna on several of these tracks. Sometimes I think it’d be best just to let her voice fly solo. Number two, I know that some material was left off of this live album and only sold as part of a deluxe package with a memory stick including four extra songs – one of them the exquisite “In Another Life”, which is a brilliant showcase for unusual instrumentation – and I feel a bit cheated that there wasn’t room for this stuff on the album and yet we do have time for one of Alex’s songs and a lot of chitter-chatter. The lack of that final star signifies room for improvement, if an artist with such a stellar back catalogue ever feels like releasing another live album. There’s so much good stuff in her repertoire that any attempt to condense it to a single, 80-minute disc is probably going to leave out some of my favorite moments. Those who have never seen her live, but appreciate her studio material, likely won’t share this complaint. Either way, it’s totally worth your money and then some.
The performance begins with a brilliant reinterpretation of one of Vienna’s oldest songs. You wouldn’t recognize it from the opening piano chords, precisely because the progression is the reverse of the main progression used in the song. It isn’t until she pauses and replays those few bars that she just recorded, backwards, that the familiar melody begins to come together. Alex Wong’s gentle tapping on the drums gives the song a skeletal feeling, accompanying the mirror-image pianos into the first platinive cry of “Hey, love”. It isn’t until the second verse that the familiar rolling triplets begin to show up and the song begins to resemble the album version. From, there the song moves with just as much power as it always did, describing the two would-ve lovers orbiting one another and then being pushed apart by a force greater than themselves. The backmasking shows up again in the outro, and the generous applause at the end of it seems to indicate that Vienna’s audience just realized they’d already gotten their money’s worth.
2. Please Welcome Mr. Ward Williams
Exactly what the title says.
3. Blue Caravan
Well, if you had to pick just one song from Dreaming Through the Noise, I suppose this would be a fantastic selection. (Really, it’s impossible for any pick from that album to not be a great inclusion in a live setlist.) Ward’s cello provides the familiar plucked melody that drives this moody song, though the instrument also lets out this uneasy squeal from time to time that adds an extra layer of lonely ambiance to an already cinematic song. Few songwriters could get away with a lyric that ends, decidedly unresolved, on the phrase “I can feel my heart growing old”, and yet still have it be as exhilirating as what Vienna’s come up with here. This one never disappoints when played live, though the cello is so integral to it that she can only do it justice with the right accompaniment. Ward and Alex certainly fit the bill.
An introduction to “Antebellum” that explains how Alex helped put the finishing touches on a difficult songwriting endeavor. As Vienna notes Alex’s tendency to salivate over a captivating piece of music, even while performing, Alex quips dryly: “I feel that this may be drawing attention to the wrong things.”
My favorite track from Inland Territory is as much a work of cascading aural bliss here as it is on the album. Vienna and Alex play it quite straight here, not changing much of anything from the original, which makes some sense because they wrote and recorded it together, and it’s mostly based around piano and drums to begin with. The pace that Alex sets feels a hair more rushed in the live version, which might take a tiny amount of drama out of this tragic tale of divorce as a war story. But that’s an extremely minor complaint.
6. The Tower
Also somewhat rushed is this completely reconstructed track from Waking Hour, which in its original form was the song that got me hooked on Vienna’s music in the first place. Alex records a hypnotic drum loop over which Vienna adds some melancholy wailing, just for the effect of having two of her singing that desperate melody. It isn’t until the piano chimes in with that familiar melody heard in Waking Hour‘s first seconds that the song becomes identifiable. Now this need to fill the needs of others is more urgent, more frantic in a way. The bridge melody, which was played on an electric guitar in the original version, is provided by a waterphone in this version. Don’t know what a waterphone is? Neither did I. But go look it up on Wikipedia, and lo and behold, there’s a picture of Alex Wong playing one! The gurgling, echoing sound is an eerie effect which accentuates the song quite nicely.
7. The Tower Has a Crush on Alex
An explanation of the previous song’s hiatus from setlists and how the new arrangement brought life back to the song. Vienna characterizes the song as a woman, which leads to another humorous crack from Alex.
8. A Hell of a Lot of Driving
A bit of insight into the story behind “Homecoming”.
This is one of the setlist choices that makes me scratch my head a bit. It’s not a bad song – I think Vienna has yet to write one – but since it’s such a simple, slow ballad generally played solo on the piano when Vienna does it live, it’s sort of a distraction from the ensemble approach that makes her live sets so great. It’s a beautiful story told from the perspective of a truck driver having an epiphany. I’ve known it since the first time I saw Vienna live (which was just her and a piano by necessity in those days), but even in its recorded version on Warm Strangers, it’s always lagged a bit in comparison to other songs, at least from my point of view. Strange that it’s survived as a fixture of her setlists for this long when more intriguing songs from the same album haven’t.
Alex introduces a song that he wrote for his band, The Paper Raincoat, which he is about to perform with Vienna.
11. In the Creases
I’ve actually seen The Paper Raincoat open for one of Vienna’s live shows, and they turned out to be quite enjoyable with their quirky, percussive brand of indie pop. The other side of their work is more acoustic, coffeehouse-type material, and Alex’s material in particular seems to fall on that side, which is odd given his abilities as a drummer. This song – which I don’t believe the band has released in a studio version yet – is based around Alex’s acoustic guitar and Ward’s melodica or whatever slightly whimsical wind instrument he’s playing. Vienna merely offers backing vocals. It’s a mildly amusing little song about how a person you’ve broken up with keeps showing up in the little remnants of themselves that they leave around your house, and how those little reminders can actually be strangely comforting even though you’d never want to tell anyone about your lack of motivation to purge this person completely from your life. Alex’s voice has more of a hushed, slightly wry quality to it, which works for the type of music that he makes, but paired with Vienna, he’s way out of his league. (I suppose I might as well get used to it, if rumors about the relationship between these two are to be believed.)
12. The Last Snowfall
I’m actually surprised that Vienna just starts with this one straight away at the end of the previous song, no intro or explanation of what she’s doing. Hearing it on the album without having seen visual evidence of the work she puts into this one might cause you to miss the brilliance of it. This pristine, almost choral work from Inland Territory was one track that I had sworn Vienna wouldn’t be able to pull off live without backup singers, and yet not only is she able to successfully loop about three iterations of herself singing the different vocal parts to it wordless chorus, she also does a cute little beatbox thing in 5/8 time to help herself keep track of the rhythm. Alex might be helping out a bit on the piano, but I’ve seen Vienna recreate the whole thing live on her own, and it is a work of jaw-dropping beauty every time. This is the kind of talent that deserves more attention in an era where many big-name performers are getting by with quantized vocal performances and click tracks and all sorts of other pre-fab ways to make us think the music’s “live”.
13. Chills (Not in the Good Way)
Vienna recounts the experience of writing “No Gringo”, which included a humbling lesson concerning her limitations with bilingual lyrics.
14. No Gringo
This haunting “what if” tale of poor Americans crossing illegally into Mexico to find work seems like less and less of a surreal dream as time goes by. it’s still beautiful and still one of my all-time favorites by Vienna. Live, it doesn’t quite match the power of the album version – it’s one point where, as much as I’m intrigued by the looping, I don’t think Alex really needs to record a drum loop for himself to make the song work. Still, it’s interesting to see how he builds upon that with shakers and other manual forms of percussion as Vienna’s story, told through the eyes of a young girl, begins to build to a fever pitch. The bridge of this song, where the time signature gets a little funky and the chord progression begins to imitate Spanish music (complete with handclaps in the original recording), falls a bit flat in the live version, since it feels like Vienna’s pounding away with no accompaniment where there’s this huge, dramatic moment expected. Alex seems to come in a few bars too late to rescue her. It’s golden from there, but definitely a strange choice, arrangement-wise. When I saw them do this one live for myself, it seemed like they were still working out the kinks, but this recording came a good half year after that point, so I don’t know.
15. Unreliable Narrator
As a songwriter, Vienna doesn’t come up with a lot of upbeat, happy songs. She explains why this is so, and why she felt the need to subvert that habit.
16. Stray Italian Greyhound
This one’s a good showcase for how fast Vienna can play. Lots of cute starts and stops in the verses, while the quivering notes get so dense as she leads up to the chorus, that I wonder how on Earth she trained her fingers to handle it. I miss the frenzied strings in the album version (Ward could be helpful there – but he’s been off-stage for a few songs at this point), but Alex does his best to make up for it with similarly lively percussion. One thing that doesn’t help here is Alex’s backing vocals. They just… don’t… work.
17. A Soundtrack to an Imaginary Film
Explanation of the intent – though not so much the specific story – behind “St. Stephen’s Cross”.
18. St. Stephen’s Cross
I might have been suffering from genius overload when I got to the tail end of Inland Territory the first few times, so it took me several attempts to figure out how much musical depth there was to this, the album’s final song. Hearing Vienna and Alex reproduce it live gives me a better idea of the nuts and bolts. Alex records a loop yet again – it’s in 4/4 and yet designed to fit the uneven meter in which Vienna is playing, so the whole thing’s a bit off-kilter even though it’s a ballad. I’ve always been so captivated by the little piano overture that fits in between the verses that I never realized this song had no chorus. That little theme is all you need to carry the emotion between each chapter of the story. Most striking is the bridge, which is a bit too overwhelmed with weird noise in the album version to put our full attention on the odd chord progression that eventually works its way back around to where the song started. That’s more apparent here, with nothing in the way – though it’s surprising that Vienna doesn’t sing whatever words are being chanted on the album at this point. (I have heard her do that in an earlier live version.) Nitpicks aside, it’s a striking performance of a song that initially sounds like it’d have too many fussy ingredients to work in a live setting.
19. Paul Stanley
Ward gets in on the wisecracking here as Vienna explains to the audience how he had suggested introducing all of her songs as if she were the lead singer from KISS. “This is serious”, deadpans Alex in response to the ensuing shenanigans.
I never get to see this one played live, at least not until it started surfacing on YouTube, because this one got left out of Vienna’s initial tour for Inland Territory and only added to the set later in the year. A lot of fans seemed to be hungry for a live version of it, so I’m glad she included it here. It’s one of the most upbeat and confident tracks in Vienna’s repertoire, despite the fact that it’s all about asking yourself the hard questions and declaring “Oh, now I’m breaking down, breaking down.” Interestingly, Alex’s percussion isn’t as aggressive as it is on the album version, which approaches more of a rock style – he’s taking a more unorthodox approach, thumping along on the bass drum but using the snare more for drama and punctuation than steady rhythm. It works, even though there’s still that issue of his vocal harmonies not meshing that well with Vienna’s.
This is still my absolute favorite Vienna song, and always a highlight of any live set, usually reserved for the end of the main set. It’s designed to bring down the house, both by being a euphorically happy pop song, and by having enough time signature changes to make the music geeks drool. That it can be played live at all is a testament to Vienna’s precision; that it can be played with an ensemble is a testament to her skills in working on-the-fly with other musicians. Alex seems to love this one, being a drummer with his own passion for unorthodox rhythms. So it’s great fun for all involved. I like this one best with the full string section, but it’s versatile enough to work even when Vienna is all by herself (which makes sense, given that it began life as a quiet instrumental that would have been the title track on Waking Hour).
22. A Very Opinionated Woman
Vienna instructs the audience to dig deep and unearth latent frustration with their bossy elders, all while keeping a beat, to set up a crucial “audience participation” component of her next song.
23. Grandmother Song
This one’s a blatantly obvious choice for any of Vienna’s live shows, because the album version may well have been recorded live, given its raucous nature. (“Raucous” relative to Vienna’s usual shtick, anyway.) The audience, of course, eats up their opportunity to participate, and it’s actually surprising that no amusing outbursts from anyone made their way onto the live CD, given the fact that Vienna actually encourages catcalls when singing this one. It’s all clapping hands, Alex’s drumming, some sass from Ward’s cello, and Vienna’s voice, in what may be the only “spiritual”-styled song inspired by an elderly Asian woman. What never ceases to amaze me is how well the audience picks on Vienna’s cues, backing off on the handclapping and general noisiness for the quieter portions of the song, and then picking back up where she needs them to, despite one point at which she strays completely from her own rhythm for a little bit of vocal spice. This one needs some video footage to really do it justice, but it’s amazing nonetheless.
By her own admission, Vienna’s a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately to the wide, weird world of Radiohead. All manner of performing artists with an independent spirit (and some rather mainstream ones as well) have been concocting their own live interpretations of Radiohead songs that seek to intentionally rip the song away from its original genre, so it’s not like Vienna’s come up with something original just by choosing to do this. But for a piano-based artist to cover a song that is almost intentionally based on the sheer force of rhythm and a harsh lack of melody, now that’s something special. Alex Wong is of course critical to this version’s success, as he has to loop back a drum rhythm with that extra measure in it and then keep time with it and watch Vienna’s cues – another good example of standard 4/4 not quite doing what you expect it to. (What’s next, an ironic cover of “Hey Ya”? I’m sure that’s probably been done, too.) Vienna’s piano initially follows the melody of the sampled tones in the original version, and while she doesn’t do a freaky Thom Yorke dance or anything, she throws the full force of her voice into the line “Heeeeeeeere, I’m aliiiiiive!”, not having to slip into falsetto like Thom does of course, ’cause she’s already a girl. The song almost approaches a jazzy sort of jam session near the end when Alex is clattering away and Vienna is playing circles around that series of simple, ascending chords. It all comes crashing to an end rather abruptly (though the original does this, too), not even a goodnight or anything as the applause quickly fades out. Great cover – not sure it belongs at the very end of the setlist, but once again, that’s a trifling little nitpick.
It’s cruel to listen to this and know that I likely won’t have the chance to see another of Vienna’s live shows for a while. But I’m glad that she’s still willing to balance her music career with school, instead of putting her recording career on hiatus indefinitely. Still, who’s to say that she won’t come up with some brilliant idea in business school that requires her full attention for a while. The existence of this live album is a reminder to me to be glad for all of those moments captured in time that I’ve been able to see her so far – and a good glimpse at what you missed if you enjoy Vienna’s music but haven’t had a chance to see her live yet. For others who haven’t heard her music at all, this is definitely still enjoyable listening, but at least get acquainted with Inland Territory first. This disc just plays better if you know the source material that she’s given herself to work with.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Blue Caravan $2
The Tower $1.50
In the Creases $1
The Last Snowfall $2
No Gringo $1.50
Stray Italian Greyhound $1
St. Stephen’s Cross $1.50
Grandmother Song $2
Vienna Teng: Lead vocals, piano, loop pedal
Alex Wong: Drums, keyboards, waterphone, backing vocals
Ward Williams: Cello, guitars
Originally published on Epinions.com.