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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1301

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Vienna Teng: Waking Hour
by George Graham

(Virt Records 1003 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/13/2002)

There is certainly no shortage of good singer-songwriters these days, especially those of the female persuasion. But since the folk music boom of the 1960s, most singer-songwriters have accompanied themselves with guitar. Those whose main instrument is the piano are rarer, and usually have a distinctive sound and composing approach, simply because the piano lends itself to a wider range of stylistic influences, from classical to jazz. Carole King and the late Laura Nyro were prototypes for women singing from the piano. These days, Tori Amos stands as a notable example. This week, we have an impressive debut recording from a young San Francisco Bay-area pianist, singer and songwriter named Vienna Teng, whose CD is called Waking Hour. This is very much a pianist's album -- close to half the pieces on the CD consist of Ms. Teng singing with only her piano accompaniment.

Twenty Three-year-old Vienna Teng started piano at age five, studying classical music. Far from being pressured by her parents into taking piano lessons, she expressed an interest from a very young age, and soon was demonstrating her abilities at improvising, writing her first song at age six. While maintaining a keen interest in music, calling herself a "music geek," Ms. Teng headed for the academic world with an interest in the sciences. After a straight-A career in high school, she enrolled in the Silicon Valley's academic catalyst Stanford University, where she started as pre-med, then switched to Computer Science as her major. Her interest in music led her to Stanford's innovative Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where she ended up recording a fair portion of her album, before she graduated. She self-released the mostly solo recording regionally, and began to attract audiences for her combination of engaging, literate songs and clear, almost angelic voice. After signing with a Massachusetts-based independent label, Ms. Teng expanded upon her CD, with the addition of some more tracks, and additional musicians and arrangements, bringing in producer David Henry for a few tracks. The result is a pleasing, and fairly wide-ranging recording that has all the right ingredients.

Ms. Teng admits to having wide-ranging tastes, and the CD reflects that some, running from the introspective solo piano ballads to more upbeat, pop-influenced material, with vague hints of trendy techno, to a track that hints at old-time cabaret. But the overall result is fairly coherent, held together by her vocals and the piano underlying everything. In terms of style, she at times could be compared to early Joni Mitchell at the piano, in her often confessional and introspective lyrics, many of which have an ostensibly bittersweet, or even downcast mood, exploring relationships that are broken or falling apart, and there is even one musical eulogy. But there is also a very nice original lullaby, and what I suppose could be called a kind of New Age Gospel tune -- both musically and philosophically.

Among the added musicians are multi-instrumentalist Eric Miller on synthesizers, bass and guitar. He served as co-producer of most of the tracks with Ms. Teng. The CD's other producer, David Henry, is heard on cello, as well as bass and guitar. Also on guitar is Will Kimbrough, from Kim Richey's band, and drummer Craig Wright, who has worked with Steve Earle.

Waking Hour alternates, more or less, between the solo piano tunes and the band arrangements. Leading off is one of the latter, a piece called The Tower, which seems to be the story of a prostitute. Ms. Teng's clear, pleasing, unaffected vocals sometimes can come close to showing their limitations in this kind of setting, but the overall result is an attractive but multi-faceted track. <<>>

The first of the solo voice and piano performances is Momentum, one of Ms. Teng's more ambiguous love-songs. It's a nicely written piece that illustrates how Ms. Teng's classical piano training stands her in good stead in weaving her accompaniment. <<>>

About the closest thing to a pop song is the composition called Gravity, featuring more of Ms. Teng's bittersweet lyrics about a relationship apparently on the rocks. Ms. Teng holds her own with the bigger arrangement, though I think she is more effective on the more sparse musical treatments. <<>>

Perhaps the saddest song, but one of its most memorable, is Say Uncle, a eulogy to late relative, and another of the tracks with solo vocal and piano. <<>>

One of the more interesting pieces from a sonic standpoint is Drought, with the full-court press of added instrumentation and overdubbed choral vocals by Ms. Teng. Though one of the better sets of lyrics on the album, the arrangement goes a little over the top. <<>>

A bit of a musical departure comes on the Latin cabaret-influenced arrangement on Unwritten Letter #1. It works surprisingly well. <<>>

Ms. Teng's record company lists New Age as among the stylistic influences on Waking Hour. But rather than the musical style, it's more the philosophy that is apparent on Soon Love Soon, which combines that with a kind of Gospel approach. The result is an interesting juxtaposition. <<>>

Lullaby for a Stormy Night is just that, a nicely written song of reassurance from a mother to child, performed with just the Ms. Teng's piano providing the accompaniment. <<>>

Vienna Teng's new debut full-length CD Waking Hour is an impressive recording from a young singer-songwriter who unlike most, works from the piano. She is a worthy composer and lyricist; her piano work is exceptionally fine -- in fact the piano-only songs are often more memorable than those with the full band. Her clear, unpretentious, pleasing voice still sounds quite youthful and has a little further room for development.

Sonically, the recording generally gets an "A" from me. It boasts commendable clarity and openness, especially on the solo piano pieces, and there is a much better dynamic range -- the span of loud to soft -- than most contemporary pop albums.

With worthwhile female singer-songwriters in great abundance, it may take some effort for Ms. Teng's CD to be noticed. But her combination of pianistic approach, intelligent songwriting, and attractive vocals make this a CD a winner, especially among debut recordings.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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