In Brief: Aims will come as a surprise, if not a complete shock, to folks expecting tender piano ballads and an overall mellow mood. But those who have enjoyed Teng for her increasingly experimental tendencies over the years will find a lot of “thinking outside the box” to delight in here, as long as you’re not inclined to view electronic sounds and heavily layered production as somehow “inauthentic”.
Long waits between studio albums can be frustrating when you’re a big fan of an artist. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that music is all that person plans on doing with his or her life, and to ask questions like, “It’s been four years. What’s the big holdup?” I certainly would have been asking questions like that about Vienna Teng – it’s not for nothing that I consider her to be all-time my favorite songwriter, after all. But those questions would have probably meet met with snarky answers like, “She went back to graduate school to get a degree in urban planning and economic sustainability. What are you doing with your life?” And as much as I was personally bummed to hear way back in 2010 that she’d be taking a break from writing and performing music for a few years, I had to admit that it was great for her to be in such a privileged position where she could have made a name for herself as an artist for so many years and yet afford to walk away from it to pursue another passion for a while. She’d walked away from a career in computer programming to pursue her love of music back in the day, so I guess the geeky side of her brain relished this new challenge.
The beauty of it is that now in 2013, as Vienna makes her comeback with a new album entitled Aims, she gets to combine what she’s learned with her artistic endeavors, not to mention a hunger for exploring more up-tempo pop and electronic music styles that she’d never tried her hand at on the mostly low-key, piano based albums she put out before going back to school. The result is an album that will definitely take some getting used to for seasoned Teng fans, but that at the same time, makes complete sense when you remember her personality as an artist. Even in the relatively mild-mannered days of Waking Hour, Vienna was the kind of woman who couldn’t resist the urge to think outside the box with each new side she wrote. As time goes by, each new thing she does seems to become the new box that she now has to think outside of, and while there are common personality quirks between all five of her studio albums, Aims is the most diverse of her offerings by a long shot. This may cause some dismay to fans who preferred the more consistent mood and flow of an album like Dreaming Through the Noise (a gorgeous record which would still make my short list if I had to choose, like, 5 albums to keep with me on a deserted island or something), but it probably won’t involve too much of a learning curve for those who adapted well to the anything goes/mix-tape philosophy of Inland Territory.
The important thing to remember about Aims, aside from the fact that it’s Vienna’s chance to muse over the things she learned about the planet, its cities, and its inhabitants during her time in grad school without the lyrics getting too nerdy or soapbox-y in the process, is that it isn’t a pop or electronic record in the traditional sense. Plenty of catchy songs on here, perhaps more so than on any of her albums, but nobody was pulling the strings at some record label office, pressuring her to make her music more accessible to the mainstream. Even with all of the synthesized stuff and the looping and layering (already a staple of her live show in the Inland Territory era), some of these songs are pretty challenging, with oddball time signatures, unusual instrumentation, and even surprising ambiance on a few of the quieter tracks. A big inspiration for this album was Katie Herzig‘s The Waking Sleep (one of my personal favorites from 2011), which Vienna discovered not long after the two singer/songwriters toured together. That was a similar step into a larger, more colorful, and more pop-oriented world than Herzig’s previous work, and Vienna’s infatuation with that album led her to seek out its producer, Cason Cooley (formerly of The Normals), to help her shape her vision for Aims. Amidst all of the rhythms and bright colors that come flying out of the speakers on this album, Vienna’s personality is not lost – in fact, all of the window-dressing only helps to magnify it. So there will still be a few gentle songs that unexpectedly warm the heart, and of course the expected creepy song that makes a chill run down your spine. Stories will be told from unusual, and sometimes even non-human, perspectives. The reaction that I have every time I listen to one of Teng’s albums for the first time – basically, “How would someone ever come up with the idea to write a song about that?” – and the fascination that ensues from it, is as strong as ever when I listen to this one.
If there’s a downside to Aims, it’s that it can sometimes feel sort of… bite-sized. It’s her shortest album, clocking in at a lean 40 minutes, and at times you’ll probably wish for the chance to “live with” a song for a little bit longer before she’s on to the next bright, shiny thing that she wants to try. Perhaps there was a conscious effort to be brief here – Teng has always such a gifted lyricist that often a single phrase can hint at entire stories going on beneath the surface, so it’s not like the length of these songs robs them of any meaning. But there isn’t the same level of interplay or spontaneity, or letting a song gradually unfold over time, as I’m used to on some of the previous album’s more exploratory songs. Nothing here runs past five minutes, so if anything here is going to be labelled “epic”, it won’t be because of its length.
But that’s honestly a minor issue. Aims is the work of a woman relentlessly crafting the perfect sounds and loops and phrases on a laptop in much the same way she used to do on a piano, and it’s no less a work of art than anything she’s done before. Vienna is the rare artist who has managed to release four albums in a row that I would consider five-star, A-grade material, and despite how ridiculous that made my expectations for her new one, I’m proud to say that she’s pulled off a fifth.
1. Level Up
Vienna has always opened her albums with something low-key and moody, and while I expected her to break that trend with this album and do something up-tempo, I didn’t expect something so darn inspirational. With something as geeky as a video gaming expression for a title, one could easily expect this to get corny in no time flat, but she somehow manages to turn a phrase that once meant gaining a level in some game-specific skill into a sort of gender-neutral version of “man up”. Set to perky synths, overclocked percussion, and an offbeat time signature that never deviates from its love of the number seven, Vienna invites the listener to come out from the shadows, acknowledging their fears but using them as fuel for the fire, and insisting they’re not the only one who feels small and inadequate. It’s an anthem of strength in numbers – “Yes, you are only one/No, it is not enough/But if you lift your eyes, I am your brother.” In some ways, it’s an ode to her new hometown of Detroit (a map of which is seen on the album cover), which isn’t far from where she went to grad school. it’s a place that, despite the run-down emptiness of so many of its neighborhoods as people flee for greener pastures, has inspired her by way of the brave few who have hung on to their dwindling neighborhoods, determined to turn things around. Tonally, it’s a far cry from melancholy classics like “The Tower” or “Blue Caravan”, but it’s quickly established itself as one of my favorites despite that.
2. In the 99
If “Level Up” came as a left-field surprise to you, then the whip-crack of this song’s hip-hop inspired drum beat may well knock you out of your chair. This is the sort of thing when a insatiably curious artist gets up from behind her piano and decides to wield a laptop instead, with her thoughts filtered through hours of listening to stuff like Kanye West. Thankfully, she picked up the production gimmicks and not the braggadocio, and the song is still incredibly melodic despite the heavy emphasis on rhythm. The layered vocals give it a sort of “tribal chant” feel, as she ponders from the point of view of an investment banker, looking out on one of those Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that I would advise most songwriters not to even attempt to write a song about and wondering, “Am I the one to praise?” which later becomes, “Am I the one who preys?” It’s hard to take on this sort of a topic without getting either preachy or cynical about it, which is where Vienna’s gift for trying to look at things through an unexpected point of view helps – though a lot of the lyrics in this song fly by so fast that I tend to think it’s more about setting up a mood and overwhelming us with the mountains of fiscal terminology than it is about driving a point home. There’s plenty of clever wordplay amidst the verses if you care to dig in and figure out what’s being sung amidst all the sounds competing for your attention: “Marketplace of multi-culti competition/Building out the fossil fracking operation/Careful of a bird blacker than a swan/‘Cause a change is gonna come, said the signal to the noise.” Admittedly, this one will be a tough sell (pun intended) for some of Vienna’s fans from the old days, but I love it for the jarring surprise that it is, and for making me take a few trips through to ponder what I think about the issue, rather than just telling me what I should think about it.
Vienna isn’t one to tout guest appearances on her albums – the only people I can recall her singing duets with before are her sometimes producer and apparent musical soulmate Alex Wong on “Antebellum”, and that little girl at the end of “Lullabye for a Stormy Night”. So it’s a bit of a surprise to hear Glen Phillips, of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame, crop up on this one – one has to wonder what precipitated that meeting of the minds. I’m guessing this happened because, as with many of Vienna’s unusual decisions, the song demanded it. Her she’s written a rather complex story of humanity pondering industry and its effect on Mother Earth… or something, I’ve heard her explain this one a few times and I’m afraid I still don’t get it. The song needed a second voice, one rather distinct from Vienna’s, to play that part that responds to all of her musings, and due to this, Phillips doesn’t even show up until about halfway through the song. And it’s not a typical piano duet by any means, either – the fluid melody that Vienna came up with on the piano is digitally disguised at first, ringing out on every eighth note as the steady pitter-pat of programmed drums keeps time. It’s a weirdly mechanical construction and yet it has a “fantasy” sort of mood to it, when the real piano comes in later and the two voices dovetail, it’s quite beautiful. The lyrics may be some of Vienna’s most abstract since “Feather Moon”, but it becomes a full-on love song at the end, the veil being lifted and the bride being revealed to the groom, relating a sort of optimism that just maybe, we short-sighted humans with our addiction to consumption and a temperamental planet that often seems hell-bent on retaking control might someday learn to live in peace with one another. (For what it’s worth, the album art contains a Venn diagram that groups all of its songs into at least one of three categories: Exhortation, Critique, and Intimacy. “Landsailor” is the only one to occupy the center space where all three overlap.)
4. Close to Home
There are times when unusual time signatures thrill my ears, and I take it as a challenge to figure out on what count the cycle starts and ends. And then there are songs like this, where for the first several listens, I just want to throw up my hands and say, “I don’t get it.” That’s the story with this icy, mid-tempo track, which has a brooding and yet curious sort of mood to it, its rhythm constantly skipping a beat ahead and finding other ways to cut corners, only to not do that and play as mild-mannered 4/4 just when you thought you had it down. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in this one, but it seems to be some sort of struggle with identity, and the temptation to disown something that was once a part of you, or that is claiming you as a part of it. There’s a part in the middle, just when some of the song’s most dramatic twists and turns have come to rest, that Vienna breaks into a cynical whisper of a final verse, almost a bit of spoken word, but the way it gains intensity as it builds back to the misshapen chorus is pretty darn sneaky. In general, once you get the hang of all the bobbing and weaving that this song does, it becomes intoxicating in its own weird way. But I’ll be honest, this will probably never become one of my favorites.
5. The Hymn of Axciom
Every Vienna Teng album just has to have one of those creepy songs, those meditations on something that will send chills down your backbone and haunt your dreams. The tradition has been to stick them in the penultimate slot on each album (“Passage”, “Pontchartrain”, “Radio”… okay, I guess Waking Hour didn’t have anything truly terrifying, but still). But this eerie little hymn defies that convention by showing up barely halfway into the album. I really can’t think of a place to put this one without it somehow breaking up the flow, given that, much like Passage, it’s entirely made up from the sound of Vienna’s voice. What’s different here is that she’s got computers to do her bidding, and she’s using what she calls “the Imogen Heap button” to split her voice into a mechanized approximation of choral harmony. (I should make it clear here that simply imitating Imogen Heap in the hopes of riding the viral coattails of “Hide and Seek” would be a poor artistic choice, but utilizing and expanding upon that sound because it helps to tell a specific story is what makes it clever.) It sounds so peaceful and pretty at first… the promise that someone hears you, knows your needs, and wants to comfort you. Those are the kinds of things any religion courting you as a member would want to tell you, right? But this isn’t the voice of God; it’s the voice of a massive server farm dedicated to collecting the most trivial details about what you buy and where you go and how you spend those fleeting late night hours on the Internet, and letting its algorithms munch on that until it can come up with the perfect sales pitch to make you want to spend more money. (Look it up. Axciom is a real thing. Shudder.) Musically, even though there’s no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever, the composition here is genius, as each verse ends with a jarring rise into a completely different key, the digital effects masking her voice becoming more and more pronounced until they’re threatening to wipe out all remaining shreds of humanity. Vienna singing the bass part in a choir just ain’t natural… even less so than a few of the uncannily high notes that she hits near the end… and yet as it all fades to a resolute “Amen”, I realize that the unholy abomination of it all was exactly the point. (If there’s any justice in the world, this song will show up in an episode of Person of Interest one of these days.)
6. Oh Mama No
They say that brevity is wit. I’m not always inclined to agree with that philosophy, especially when a song I was enjoying ends abruptly barely two minutes in. What the heck’s going on here. Vienna’s got a lovely, fragile little construction here that builds off of a simple finger-picked pattern on an acoustic guitar, begins to add a flurry of strings as things get more intense, and then one last quick chorus and that’s a wrap. I got so hung up on the short run time of this one that I couldn’t see the genius in it, the way that the story’s supposed to be over sooner than you know it because that’s how it punches you in the gut. Let’s be honest: If I were try to pack the story of an adult woman, beleaguered by her mother’s constant nagging and insistence that she call and come visit more often, only to gradually realize the gratitude she feels towards her mother after suddenly losing her into a song, it would easily run six or seven minutes. Why? Because I’d want to pack in all of these emotional details and I just wouldn’t want to leave anything out. Once I really sat down and looked at these lyrics, I was amazed at how entire chapters in this woman’s life could be extrapolated from lyrics that weren’t even complete sentences: “All day/One long tethered motion/Sweep, stir, sow.” Ah, I get it – those three S’s are a housewife’s tasks in the “old world” that a child of immigrants probably feels awkward about going back to visit. In the second verse, the words become “Sleep, slur, slow”, reflecting the jetlag and discomfort felt when brought somewhat unwillingly to visit that old world. Then the bridge brings the tragedy, the nagging suddenly becomes a cry for help, and BAM, we get three G’s instead: “And then one day/In the boxes upon boxes/Grieve, give, go.” Even the chorus, which barely sticks around for long enough to say “Oh mama no” a few times, becomes a promise of remembrance: “Oh mama, know I will.”
7. Copenhagen (Let Me Go)
On an album so preoccupied with its own home-spun version of electronic pop music trickery, I got so caught up in this song’s catchiness that I completely missed its more “organic” nature. Like much of the album, it’s quite heavy on the rhythm, but the most noticeable percussion isn’t coming from the drums – it’s coming from plastic cups and handclaps. One of those innocent things from childhood, brought back to support an unabashedly catchy pop song that may as well be this album’s “Stray Italian Greyhound”. The tone of it isn’t quite as optimistic – dig in a bit and you’ll find that there are several voices arguing with one another, each with their own terms and demands, ready to get up and walk the moment it seems like one of the other parties won’t budge. But it turns into a beautiful round of layered vocals worthy of a stage musical, where the chorus and bridge and a third vocal part all intertwine, essentially begging for the same things in different terms. As fun as it is to listen to on the album, this one shines brightest in concert, where it’s just Vienna on a piano and her two bandmates playing the cups, with Vienna joining the percussive melee at the end and all three members singing those different vocal parts, in unison, while keeping the crazy cup rhythm. Jaws will drop. It’s just too much fun.
8. Flyweight Love
Another vocal effect used in the creation of this album that Vienna has lovingly nicknamed is “the Barry White button”. It’s exactly what it sounds like – bend that lovely feminine voice down into eerie, low-pitched territory, except unlike “The Hymn of Axciom” where it was used to haunt us, here it’s used playfully, along with metallic keyboard effects to give the song a “pretend safari at the zoo” sort of feel. Seeing her reconstruct these sounds from scratch in concert was quite amusing, but it’s notable that even when the individual pieces seem absurd, she can still use it to construct a meaningful song. I’ll admit that I haven’t delved into this one as much – I’ve been guilty of hearing its cheery chorus melody and its flight-of-fancy sound effects, and thinking it’s just a song about a person trotting around the globe missing someone someone special who pines for them back at home. “Transcontinental, 1:30 A.M.” sort of touched upon that theme already, maybe a little bit in “Recessional” as well, but there’s something else going on here – perhaps both people are traveling and they need each other as an anchor to keep from going mad against the constantly changing cultures and time zones and sunrises when their body clocks tell them it’s time for dinner. Or perhaps the term “flyweight” refers to an intentional lack of commitment. Vienna was purposefully cagey about the actual meaning of this one when she was working on the song, deciding to “crowd-source” little spoken word vignettes from her fans on the Internet, but only giving them a vague sense of the subject matter to work with. As a result, little snippets of different voices can be heard at the beginning (and very faintly at the end) of the song, ruminating on what it means for two people who love each other to be apart. It’s kind of neat-o if you or someone you know made the cut, I guess, but for me, it kind of distracts from the flow of the music a tiny bit.
9. The Breaking Light
If “Flyweight Love” was concerned with the emotional overload of all of that gallivanting around and the colorfulness of the world, then this song’s more concerned with the quite, serene greyness of a long midnight haul over a featureless ocean. Its indistinct watery sound is pure ambiance most of the way through, which is actually pretty cool once you realize that the soft, humming feedback is actually the amplified sound of a finger caressing the edge of a wine glass filled with just the right amount of water to get the desired harmonic effect. A few other tones join in, but it isn’t until midway through the the more conventional sound of the piano begins to creep in, and even then, it’s backmasked and distorted in other ways, as if sluggishly waking up for a dream, before the song finally makes its way to steady ground. I really didn’t see this one as anything special until I realized what was going on behind the scenes. It’s probably the most minimalistic thing Vienna has ever done, and it also completely defies expectations when you see that it’s a duet with Alex Wong, because his usual style is much more rhythmic than this as well. His voice is mostly subtle support for hers, rather than playing a distinct character as he did in “Antebellum”, but there’s a subtle beauty two it as the two harmonize while stretching out the vowels in the phrase “brea – ea – ea – ea – king light” in the song’s meek chorus. This one worked better for me in concert – there’s a sort of solemn spirituality when the audience joins on on the final, wordless refrain that is tough to fully appreciate if you haven’t been there in the midst of it. Still, I’ve learned to like the studio version a lot more than I initially did.
10. Don’t Look Away
There are times when I think that “The Breaking Light” would have worked better as the final cut on the album. It has such an air of peaceful finality to it, that it seems weird for anything to follow – especially the bright, echoing piano chords and wispy synths that immediately tell you Vienna’s about to try to drag you down on the dancefloor. I would have thought many years ago that this sort of thing could never work for Vienna – as much as I liked her trying on various genre hats and surprising us occasionally by not being moody and quiet all the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted her to start dance-remixing her own material. But it’s hard not to like this one. Much as it might seem like someone took an old “Tower”-style ballad of hers and electrified it and amped up the tempo, the brisk motion of it is hard to resist, and it’s notable in that the way its rhythm rises and falls in intensity is carefully thought out – it’s not just a mindless, sweaty, genre exercise. The lyrics here are some of the album’s most intriguing to me – especially because this is the only song from Aims that I’ve never heard her perform live or talk about at any length, so I only have vague clues as to what’s going on. Like “Level Up”, it seems to be trying to pull someone out from the shadows, to build up their confidence in some way. Yet there’s a darker side to it – amidst all of the pretty promises like “If you’re out there in the cold/I’ll cover you in moonlight”, there’s stuff like this: “Somebody ought to corrupt you on the dance floor/And take you home/Show you all your daemons and desires and dark sides/All of your colonies and continental divides.” You know, there’s so much geographic and astronomical language in this one that I can’t help but wonder if she’s singing about the planet itself, as if this were some sort of celestial dance between Earth and Sun.
11. Goodnight New York
Okay, I have an oddly specific pet peeve to confess: I’m getting kind of tired of songs about New York City. If you’d asked me a few months ago why I felt that way, it would have been because the place seems overhyped, and I also had this perception that New Yorkers kind of look down at L.A. But then I actually went to New York a few months ago, and my (admittedly brief) experience there reminded me that it’s actually a pretty cool place, so I had to set aside my biases and realize, I’m kind of sick of songs about L.A. too. (There’s a whole nation in between the two coasts to write about, people!) I can’t really fault Vienna for composing an ode to the city that was her home during the making of Inland Territory and leading up to her move to grad school, though. And to be fair, as easy-going and low-key groovy as this one may sound at first, it’s also sort of an admission that it can be an exhausting place to live, yet she seems to remember it fondly for giving her such a hard time: “May you be always heartbreaking/Take a little more than you give/Yeah, but when you give, oh my!” Perhaps the song’s most intriguing line is one that reflects her choice to move away and start a different chapter of her life: “I walk away to remember who I am”. Musically, I’ll be honest, this song ain’t really doing it for me up until the bridge – it just seems too pedestrian for a woman who set out to push the boundaries of radio-friendly pop music, and maybe even a little pandering (which is something I tend to suspect about any song that names a specific, heavily-populated city). But when she gets to the bridge, the rhythm shifts and the melody builds up steam towards a rousing final chorus, my interest perks up considerably. Reminding us that you can take the woman out of the city, but not necessarily the city out of the woman, she offers this thought: “I’ll say goodnight but it’s never goodbye”. And then, in a somewhat sudden final verse that I appreciate even if I don’t think it works as the very last thought on an album, she turns her attention to the new home where her heart now resides: “Good morning lover/Give me your hand/Today begins, and it’s all that we have.”
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Level Up $2
In the 99 $1.75
Close to Home $1
The Hymn of Axciom $2
Oh Mama No $1.25
Copenhagen (Let Me Go) $2
Flyweight Love $1
The Breaking Light $1
Don’t Look Away $1.75
Goodnight New York $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: