Vienna Teng may be the most consistent artist of our generation to not find mainstream success.
Though I’m sure Zöe/Rounder wants to do anything in their power to change that pronouncement, Teng has chosen instead to quietly innovate, pushing herself musically to new levels each time out of the gate, allowing her to, at thirty, reach a pinnacle on her fourth album which most artists don’t reach in a lifetime. Inland Territory is an accomplished masterwork from a songwriter who knows how far to push her limits without alienating her fans.
And though she hasn’t quite figured out the route to radio or television success via her music, those of us who have heard her albums over the last decade are pleased to hear her continue to develop her sound without pandering to what might gain more mainstream success.
Teng’s first album, Waking Hour, was recorded on her own while at Stanford. Only later was it picked up by a label and widely released. She attempted to smooth the edges with her second outing, Warm Strangers, crafting a more complete album which still showed an artist in her growth cycle. It wasn’t until Dreaming Through The Noise in 2006, which shredded the envelope entirely, that Teng found a voice totally and uniquely hers. Instead of flirting with her jazz influences, Teng dived into the idiom wholeheartedly on her third effort, crafting a complex song-cycle of musical depth and beauty.
To expect Teng to leap forward again on her fourth effort seemed too much to ask. I’ll admit I went into this effort hoping merely that she’d be able to hold her ground artistically. Instead, I was greeted with an album which, while consistently showing markings of Teng’s musical progression, continues to push the boundaries of what her music can be. The jazz elements are still there, but so is a willingness to experiment with the keyboard, even using synthesizers on the album’s first single “White Light.” Meanwhile there’s a distinct lyrical theme throughout the album, the concept of change as a violent, unexpected, unwanted and yet often necessary force in all our lives.
While some of these songs sound musically like what one expects from Teng as a musician, there’s a constant sense that there’s always a little more beneath the surface. In turn, this becomes both Vienna’s most adventurous, daring album musically and its most impressive lyrically. It’s not always an easy listen but it’s the most rewarding experience musically that she’s provided during her career.
“No Gringo,” for example, turns the immigration debate on its ear, allowing us to picture the plight of a gringo family forced south to find work in a Mexico where Americans aren’t wanted. Meanwhile, “Grandmother’s Song” plays out the argument of many first-generation Asian Americans that, to find acceptance and success in the world, one must become a doctor, a lawyer, a person in power.
Teng herself has heard the argument before that she wasted her talents by leaving the world of engineering to become a musician. But as we listen, she turns the argument inside out, exposing the sacrifices made by her grandmother’s generation. There’s the sense that today’s generation has to validate the efforts of the previous ones, carrying all of that history on their shoulders even as it sometimes stifles their ability to develop a history of their own.
Other songs on the album, including “Antebellum” and “Kansas,” turn the discussion toward the quiet wars we fight with each other emotionally in our fear of change. She varies her stories from personal to wide-reaching, often using visceral metaphors to push us into the experience. “Radio,” for example, shows us how easily we turn our backs on the world’s problems, only becoming involved when something happens to us. Musically she counters her lyrical argument with a tense aural blast of conflicting sounds meant to force us out of our musical comfort zone.
This isn’t music for passive listening. There’s too much being said to develop an understanding of what Teng’s musical and lyrical experimentation has created without conscious thought as a listener. That, however, makes it more rewarding when everything clicks into place and as a listener you put together the connective tissue to find the whole.
In turn, Inland Territory stands as an example of how subtle changes in method, genre and style can lead to great progress musically in a relatively short period of artistic development. For those seeking meaning in music, Vienna Teng’s music should not be missed by any means. The album serves as both a perfect continuation to her musical course as well as a solid way of introducing her music to the uninitiated.
It is an album which deserves to be savored.