may 2009

This World, Newly Explored, Freshly Mapped, Daunting But Beckoning

By David McGee

Vienna Teng
Vienna Tang: 'I wrote these songs for people who are willing to be challenged by what they hear'

Vienna Teng

Halfway through Vienna Teng's utterly mesmerizing Inland Territory, this child of an immigrant Taiwanese family, a Stanford grad with a bachelor's degree in computer science and a two-year tenure as a Cisco Systems software engineer, chronicles a time of generational conflict in her family, which happened to be spurred by her decision to forsake the supposed stability of her Cisco career for the tenuous life of musician. Such internecine warfare is nothing new; it was old even long before Vernon Presley told his young son Elvis, "I never met a guitar player who was worth a damn." We know how that one worked out. In "Grandmother Song," backed by an energetically protesting fiddle sawing away, along with ensemble clapping and hooting, and percussive stomping, Ms. Teng declaims her grandmother's perfervid response to her granddaughter choosing music over the supposed sure thing awaiting a Stanford graduate, this sung from the perspective of one who crawled through all sorts of personal and political wreckage to get to the free world and build a better life for her descendants. Teng attacks the lyrics with the relish of one delighting in her Elvis moment of having made the right choice, but there's nothing vengeful or sarcastic in her attitude—she's honoring Granny's legit worries rather than rubbing an artist's growing acclaim in her elder's face. Might this have been the case a few years ago, when the comely Ms. Teng was unknown and unsigned, with no press clips to call her own, no gathering of converts to snatch up every seat at her concerts here and abroad? No matter—it sounds real now, and it comes without bitterness or smugness, but rather with a grace born of self-assurance. Thus the attitude informing the whole of Inland Territory, Ms. Teng's fourth album, which ranges from the somber, piano-based, hymn-like album opening meditation on the passing of love, "The Last Snowfall," to the bristling, wah-wah infused rock of "Radio," to the scintillating folk and classical elements fueling the fire of "In Another Life" (a poignant memory of her ancestors' harsh existence in China linked to her own, comparatively sunny pursuits in a more generous land), to "St. Stephen's Cross," in which a soothing, jazz-tinged piano ballad intermittently gives way to a crescendo of eerie, wailing guitars, tumbling piano lines, and disembodied choir voices swirling in the arrangement's ether, as Teng coolly captures the inflamed emotions of a couple caught up in the fervor of revolution—"they were there the night the wall was drowned"—and striving to make order of chaos, until they embrace each other anew in freedom's fresh glow.

Inland Territory is an authentic coming-of-age work of art in which Teng (born Cynthia Yih Shih) mates personal history and social conscience to the wealth of musical tools at her command, including textures crafted from classical, pop, electronic, rock and folk sources, these buttressing arrangements framing her own rich piano and soft, airy, expressive voice. In an astute portrait of Teng published in the Boston Globe this past December, correspondent Andrew Gilbert properly noted the tripartite structure of the new album, in that it contains song groupings focused on intimate personal relationships, the upheavals of family history and topical themes torn from the headlines, you might say. The music is nigh on to intoxicating: co-producing with multi-instrumentalist Alex Wong, Teng shows a deft hand for dynamics and ambiance in the ascending and descending passages of arrangements, deploying strings and horns with a masterful, subtle touch, as exemplified to striking effect in the restrained beauty of both in the poignant ballad, "Kansas," which seems always to be teetering on the edge of explosion but keeps pulling back to a gentle hum, tantalizingly so. And she's not afraid to inject some sly wit into the proceedings, both instrumentally—think of the familiar clip-clopping oboe figure in "Another Life," not an unfamiliar classical device but in this instance, in a song depicting her ancestors' struggles with authority in mainland China, picking it up from Tchaikovsky's "Chinese Dance" in the "Nutcracker Suite" is a clever comment on the subject matter, and makes for a mesmerizing contrast with the five-note (Chinese scale?) piano figure recurring through the piece along with a passing taste of Dixieland-style hooting clarinet lines to boot. Lyrically, you have to hand it to her for regarding a failed romance with a brittle, wistful acceptance and generosity of spirit, while admitting to a fallout of epic dimension, the principals beyond any measure of reconciliation, and confirming, at last, that love is indeed a battlefield (what did Pat Benatar know, and when did she know it?), to wit: "Our Antebellum innocence was never meant to see the light of our Armistice Day."

Going beyond herself and her family to look at the world at large, Teng adopts a somber, reportorial tone against a churning backdrop of military drums, churchy piano, electric guitar riffing, ascending and sputtering horns, restless handclaps and plaintive, moaning background voices shadowing her own as she surveys the unfeeling, everyday discrimination immigrants face ("No Gringo"); "Radio," the album's penultimate track, starts off as if it's going to be a lighthearted dance number with someone beating out a whimsical, insistent rhythm on a glass (maybe a triangle?) and Teng cooing in her come-hither voice, "It's just the radio, darlin'/just the radio/just the radio in your runaway imagination/just the radio/we could turn away to another station." The fun ends there, as Teng coolly describes a suicide bomber exploding a backpack bomb on a San Francisco bus ("it came from nowhere/on the 38 Geary, a girl with a backpack of shrapnel and wire") and the ensuing horror of blood, glass and an erupting civil war, all delivered with a disarming blend of dispassionate detail and freaked-out delirium, as a wah-wah guitar coils around the mix, voices whisper and moan unintelligibly with Teng's and the drums rumble a jittery, anxious rhythm. At the halfway mark the song phases into a second movement, a dreamy, rather R&B-inflected ballad passage commencing over a sultry organ riff, "Sing me a love song, dear," until revealing itself to be the hoi polloi's conventional wisdom: "C'mon, it'll never happen here/oh, no, we are not some third world country/this is not some third world country," before the tumult begins anew, Teng cries out, "I held him for as long as I could," the wah-wah and drums heat up again, and out of the maelstrom we return to where we began—"it's just the radio, darlin'/just the radio"—but it's a different, more malevolent world now and the radio, just the radio, darlin', is an instrument of terror.

"I wrote these songs for people who listen closely, who are willing to be challenged by what they hear," the artist says in her official bio. If Vienna Teng can challenge herself, indeed, why not challenge her listeners? On Inland Territory, newly explored, freshly mapped, her fearlessness is our gain.

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Vienna Teng performs "Antebellum" from Inland Territory, live in Los Angeles, September 30, 2008, with Alex Wong

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Vienna Tang performs "Kansas" from Inland Territory, in San Francisco, CA, January 12, 2008

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
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