Monday, December 16, 2013

album review: 'aims' by vienna teng

Here's a fun fact about my 'job' as a music critic here: people send me music they want me to cover or talk about all the time, which means I'm almost always slammed with more material than I'll ever be able to cover. But believe it or not, I do listen to nearly all of it and I'm always on the lookout for material that deserves more mainstream attention, or at least the attention of record labels hungry for new talent.

But here's one of the unfortunate things about working in the era of the internet: thanks to iTunes and the relative ease of distribution, it exposes a ton of talent who might otherwise get ignored. But at the same time it floods the market and makes finding true superstars a real challenge - separating the wheat from the chaff takes time, and when I still have a full-time job and have to cover hundreds of professional acts, it makes hunting through the independent or underground scenes incredibly difficult. And as much vitriol as I spew at the record industry, they simply have more resources in sweeping through the talent pool and finding marketable stars (managing them, however, is an entirely different issue).

But even on that note, I'm floored that none of the major labels have swooped in to grab up Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter Vienna Teng yet, because it's been a long time since I've seen an act as professional and talented as this. She's been around for over ten years on the fringes of the indie folk and pop scenes, and has always gotten rave reviews for her albums when they've bothered to pay attention, but maybe it was an issue of marketing or promotion from her label or not having that killer single, because she seemed to fly entirely under the radar. So she did what indie acts have had some success with in 2013 - she founded her own record label to release her newest album Aims, all the while finishing grad school. So, from a recommendation, I took a listen to that album: how was it?

Well, it's awesome. Make no mistake, it's a goddamn crime that Vienna Teng is not receiving airplay, because if I'm looking an adult alternative indie pop album that could rule the airwaves if properly pitched, it would be this album. Now let me stress that Aims by Vienna Teng isn't perfect by any stretch, but considering it's an independent release and manages to balance fantastic melodies with songs containing some intellectual heft, it's damn great.

Let's start with Vienna Teng herself, and here's where I run into the first element that really sold me on her: her voice. She reminds me of an adult alternative singer from the mid-to-late 90s with her rich, smooth timbre, her measured delivery, and her incredible range. You can tell she has had some training and experience, but she manages the key element that makes her stand out: she knows how to balance her scope. She can belt and project, but she's much more effective at conveying the little emotional moments in a way that still manages to resonate, like a blend of Dido and Celine Dion. In fact, I'll say it: this is what Celine Dion's newest album should have sounded like!

But the more I think about it, Vienna Teng's closest contemporary probably isn't Celine, but the girl-group HAIM (who I reviewed earlier this year), and this definitely comes through in the instrumentation and production. But while HAIM is more bombastic, with a lot of heavier guitar and percussion, Vienna Teng is sticking much closer to chamber pop with a much richer well of classical instrumentation (seriously, some of the sonic choices she uses I don't want to spoil, they're that good), only dipping into subtler electronic synths and backbeats that have presence but are never obtrusive. The percussion is probably the area where the electronica does the most heavy lifting, but the balance of the mix never lets it overwhelm or eclipse the vocals or melody line. The one place where I think it becomes a little obtrusive is on 'Never Look Away', which opts for a slightly more conventional dance beat that didn't really stand out, mostly because the melody line doesn't have the same presence. And that's honestly where this album makes or breaks - the best songs on the album are where the killer hooks and melodies take prominence, either driven by Vienna's excellent choral arrangements (you can definitely tell she has an acapella background on this album) or some fantastic keyboard lines. Honestly, the worst thing I can say about this album from an instrumental or production standpoint is that a few of the hooks didn't really stick with me and the vocal production can be a little shaky (the electronic elements on the acapella tune made sense with lyrical context, but they didn't quite work for me as well).

But the place where HAIM really lost me was in the lyrics and themes - and here, Vienna Teng blows them out of the water. Not only is she a great poet with a natural gift for meter, her songs are sharp and witty enough to come together into a striking and emotionally evocative whole that managed to really grip me. On a thematic level, this album speaks heavily about traveling and moving on, pursuing one's dreams and encouraging others to do the same in a modern world that seems to have contempt for the bright-eyed optimism Vienna Teng brings to the table (that's the other element that definitely recalls the parts of the 90s that avoided irony). The album isn't afraid to soar on adrenaline and wonder, which makes 'Level Up', 'Copenhagen (Let Me Go)', and my personal favourite 'Landsailor' brush epic territory effortlessly. But what knocks this album up a few notches is the fact Vienna Teng is smart enough to frame her material with nuance: 'In The 99' might seem to target sell-out businessmen, but Vienna frames them with a hint of sympathy and shows how most of them aren't really happy where they are. 'The Hymn Of Acxiom' takes a gorgeous acapella tune and marries it with lyrics describing how so many will just surrender to corporate structures - which then provide them all the convenience and simple comfort they want. Indeed, if this album has a focus on those who follow their dreams, it also does plenty to show how such people can hurt their families, friends, and loved ones with their single-mindedness. Songs like 'Oh Mama No', 'Flyweight Love', and 'The Breaking Light' press on this theme, and 'Never Look Away' goes a step further and touches on the loneliness that said goal-seekers often feel, and their desire for companionship, even if it's fleeting. And what works about all of it is constant empathy - Vienna never casts anyone as an enemy or friend, instead touching on the warring desires for comfort and following one's dreams, and framing both as neither black or white. It's an album steeped in mature songwriting, and yet still can recapture that exuberant pop sensibility to draw more emotions than melancholy.

In other words, this album is fantastic and a definite favourite. On lyrics alone, I'd recommend this album, but the fact that Vienna Teng has such great hooks on Aims and a beautifully compelling feel for melody makes it even stronger. It's a gripping album, but it requires you to be engaged to fully appreciate it - but even with that, I can't say all of the melodies really clicked perfectly with me, and I definitely think the first half of the album is stronger than the second. The last track 'Goodnight New York', in particular, didn't feel like an adequate album closer, and that lack of a cohesive thesis does mean I'm only giving Vienna Teng's Aims an 8/10. But goddamn it if it doesn't earn that score in a big way, and a definite recommendation along with it.

So I'll end with this: Lena Dunham, you want to highlight women with phenomenal talent for the scores of your show Girls, and one that is both nuanced and relevant to people my generation today? You need to be listening to Vienna Teng yesterday, because this woman definitely deserves the spotlight.

1 comment:

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