Listening to Vienna Teng I often found myself mistaking what I was hearing for Tori Amos. It's an honest slip because both exhibit lovely melodies behind such beautiful voices.
The California-born Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist saw music as being such a huge part of her life that she quit her job as a software engineer in 2002 to pursue composing and performing full-time. Seven years and four albums later, you could say that she is doing quite well.
"I'm kind of a late bloomer," describes Teng. "I'm talking about artistic maturity, not success. I feel like I'm just now settling into who I am in a lot of ways" (press release).
On her fourth album Inland Territory (recorded over five months and co-produced by longtime friend Alex Wong), Teng displays an established presence usually reserved for older musicians, mimicking an arc-shaped style of storytelling similar to Amos' 2002 Scarlet's Walk.
"The Last Snowfall" opens the album with an enchanting minimalist melody, providing a filling atmosphere not found on her singlehanded-sounding third album Dreaming Through the Noise (2006). Teng employed her friends to play on Territory and the effect is an adorable richness, from the angelic choral singing in "The Last Snowfall" to the pop fever of "White Light" to the subdued jazz pop of "In Another Life."
The boisterous live recording of "Grandmother Song" showcases Teng's new found enlightened and empowered musical sensibility. You couldn't have imagined her performing a song like that amid her earlier works, but her willingness to take risks (like "Grandmother Song" and the political anthem "Radio") adds to the album's intricate diversity. She informs that "now I really go for the sounds I'm hearing in my head, and tackle the subjects I've really wanted to write about, when before I might have shied away."
The standout track is the provocative (yet unpreachy) look at love "Antebellum" that features Wong's vocals. Teng's delicate, yet passionate voice soars through the look at time's past and present: "I know our antebellum innocence / was never meant to see the light of our armistice / but how much would I give to have it back again / how much did we lose to live this way."
Inland Territory marks Vienna Teng entering into the group of female singer-songwriters that includes Amos, Regina Spektor, and Neko Case. Her voice and her musical expression capture a full range of emotions through pleasing storytelling and soothing harmonies.