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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1745

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Vienna Teng: Aims
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/16/2013)

There's a bit of a stereotype of female singer-songwriters as tending to be the classic folkie with acoustic guitar, or maybe piano-playing artists who write confessional songs. There may be a bit of justification for the characterization, but there are some women doing interesting things musically with creative and sometimes quirky arrangements, including veteran artists like Kate Bush, and more recent arrivals like Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and Imogen Heap, who relies more on electronics and sonic manipulation in the studio than strumming on a guitar.

This week we have a interesting new recording by an artist who has been on -- and off -- the scene since 2002. She has gone from the piano-playing introspective artist with some classical training to making a technology-rich recording that is rather striking in its blend of stylistic ingredients. She is Vienna Teng, and her new CD, her fifth, is called Aims.

In her publicity bio, Vienna Teng, born Cynthia Yih Shih, says that she likes to joke that she has long-term A.D.D. Indeed her career has been one of zigs and zags, back and forth between academe, science and music. Growing up in the San Francisco area of parents who are from Chinese extraction, she started in music at an early age, taking a great interest in and beginning lessons on the piano at age 5. But her academic career took her to Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley. She recorded part of her first album at an electronic music lab there. It was released in 2002 when she was 23 years old. But after graduation she went to work for a while at Cisco Systems, the Silicon Valley giant. But then took another turn and did music full time for the next seven years, touring worldwide and appearing on commercial TV shows, including David Letterman.

But in 2010 she changed her focus again to the academic world and attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, having moved from the Bay area to New York and then to Detroit, where she is currently based. She got her MBA and also an MS in Environmental Science, but was drawn again to music, four years after her last album, 2009's Inland Territory. After being away from music for a while, she found that it was fun again. Her studies inspired some of the songs. She is quoted as saying "Being a musician no longer defines my whole identity; I'm doing other work now... I don't need [these] songs to be successful in ways that are beyond my control. I can just have fun."

In a further twist, she went to Nashville to record with producer Cason Cooley who brought a much more electronic and tech-based approach the music, with a de-emphasis on the piano for which Ms. Teng has been known. She said that they looked to current popular artists including Beck, Florence and the Machine, Vampire Weekend and even Kanye West for inspiration. The result, here, though tends to maintain the interesting, musically sophisticated approached that has marked Ms. Teng's music over the years. There are hints of commercial pop in the sound, but it never gets the best of the music, and Ms. Teng's vocals are much better than most on the commercial pop scene.

There are a couple of different bands of supporting musicians on the record, but producer Cooley relies a great deal on his library of computer music samples for a lot of the sounds. There is a guest appearance from Glen Phillips of the band Toad the Wet Sproket, and a string section is heard here and there.

The fairly succinct under-40-minute CD opens with a piece called Level Up, which illustrates the more produced sound of Aims. Though it outwardly has a few current pop cliches, the result has a lot more depth than most such music. <<>>

In the 99 was inspired by the Occupy Movement imagining a look at the protests from the standpoint of a one-percenter who is trying to do some good for the world. <<>>

Glen Phillips makes his appearance on part of the track called Landsailor. It's in keeping with Ms. Teng's goal of making upbeat, positive-sounding music. <<>>

Perhaps the most striking track on the CD is The Hymn of Acxiom, done in a multiply overdubbed performance with distinctive lyrics that are about all the things that are known about your lives in this high tech world with all its surveillance and electronic trails left by people. The song is from the standpoint of Big Data trying to lull people with reassurance. <<>>

The string section appears on the song called Oh Mama No, which is nicely arranged and performed. <<>>

Ms. Teng asked for contributions from her fans of comments on unconventional relationships to be used as the introduction to a song called Flyweight Love. She said that part was inspired by the voices on the introduction to Simon & Garfunkel's Old Friends. <<>>

Probably the closest to commercial pop on this album is a piece called Never Look Back, complete with a somewhat tedious dance rhythm. But the song still has some creative musical ideas. <<>>

The CD ends with a sort of lullaby and a love song to her previous city of residence. It's called Goodnight New York. <<>>

Aims the new CD by Vienna Teng, her first since 2009 and after a period spent in academic pursuits rather than music, is a worthwhile and creative recording that employs much more of the studio technology than her previous albums. But most of it works well and her quality of songwriting remains very high. With the consciously contemporary sound on much of the album, there are some pop cliches on the record which tend to distract from the musical originality that otherwise predominates.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. Dspite the heavy synthesizer and sampling presence on the record, the sound is clean and the effects work well with the music. Dynamic range is a little better than you might expect for a CD in this style.

There is a lot of technology-driven pop music on the scene these days, much of it homogeneous and downright boring. Vienna Teng, on her new independent, fan-funded CD Aims, is one of a few artists who are raising the bar for this kind of sound with worthwhile compositions and thoughtful lyrics.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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