Vienna Teng: Warm Strangers
Genre: Sophisticated, classically influenced pop
Label: Virt Records
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- On her out-of-left-field debut, Warm Strangers, pianist/composer/singer Vienna Teng holds high the torch of originality, casting intriguing shadows on the adult pop landscape. Teng, a classically trained Asian American, creates elegant, literary songs laden with delicately sculpted melodies and crisp imagery. She finds a musical soulmate in Nashville producer David Henry, who artfully and imaginatively arranges Teng’s compositions for a small ensemble dominated by violin, viola and cello. In collaboration with Henry, Teng presents her high-brow pop with a cinematic flair that moves the record along from scene to scene, not unlike a short film or a loosely-connected book of prose and verse set to music. Her knack for storytelling, however, sometimes takes a backseat to her more abstract sensibilities, as on the enigmatic "My Medea" and the haiku-like "Feather Moon." With its chorus mantra and an impressionistic lyric that smacks slightly of Michael Stipe’s neo-beatnik ramblings, the latter track suggests mid-‘80s era R.E.M. in formal attire. Indeed, the disc’s first four selections seem linked by their absence of traditional narrative, issuing forth from Teng’s inner world but not entirely lacking in recognizable emotional landmarks. It’s clear that something is going on behind these pieces, but no explanations are given. The nervous energy of an adventure just underway informs the wide-eyed "Harbor," which evokes breathlessness with its kinetic, off-kilter feel, while ambition collides with desperation in the pumping pulse of "Hope On Fire," the record’s rhythmic highpoint. The simple yet majestic chorus of "Shine" exhorts us to "find the love to unfold in this broken world we choose" before ushering the disc into a second act of sorts.
The sound of a passing automobile transports the listener into "Mission Street," which takes the listener into the outside world, where new possibilities exist alongside potential pitfalls. In "Shasta" and "Homecoming," we meet a pair of characters on respective - and possibly interwoven - journeys that lead to seemingly redemptive left turns: on the former, an abortion-bound young woman encounters grace and an unexpected change in plans, while "Homecoming" portrays a male traveler who answers the call of a motel Bible "in the nightstand drawer saying ‘go on, open up.’" The disc’s most poignant moment comes in the a cappella "Passage," in which a deceased person observes her former world from afar, rife with minute details of her surviving family and friends at different stages in time.
Theatrical and deliberate, Teng’s music recalls Tori Amos but is far more benevolent, while the alternating passion and hushed calm in her songs are akin to Enya’s but without that Celtic chanteuse’s grandiose, otherworldly quality. Teng’s vocal delivery, while crystalline and pure, seems oddly detached and unexpressive at times, like a straight line traveling across engaging musical scenery. Still, the tasteful arrangements featured throughout offer more than enough compensation, leaving a positive overall effect. However inviting its assortment of people, places, impressions and random fragments may be, the overriding artistic victory of the multi-dimensional Warm Strangers is the way those fragments ultimately interlock to tell a far larger story.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This article was developed by UMC.org, a ministry of United Methodist Communications