All the pundits who have declared the album dead and gone haven’t heard Vienna Teng. Just as no self-respecting music fan would buy just a single track from “Blue,” “The Wall” or “Abbey Road” and leave it at that, Teng’s newest, “Inland Territory,” deserves a full 50 minute listen.
The sweep of history informs every note. The sound of a needle on a phonograph record (kids – ask you parents) serves as percussion in the opening bars of “Last Snowfall.” On that track, old soul Vienna, who only recently turned 30, imagines her dying days – “if this were my last glimpse of winter/what would these eyes see?” – with the clarity of someone twice her age.
Civil War imagery dominates “Antebellum,” which is a love song typical of Teng’s early work – rich, complex and never quite naming a guilty party. Teng’s soaring soprano is draped in chamber violins, with a lovely descant from Alex Wong (Paper Raincoat), who also co-produced the record.
“Kansas,” imagines the end of romance as a vast, empty landscape, laid to waste by nature and neglect (“every wall I lean on transforms to sliding doors and thin air”).
Wong’s delicate touch and clever choice of instrumentation and effects imbues “Inland Territory” with a timeless quality. Each listen is a revelation. “In Another Life” describes the life and afterlife of coal miners, revolutionaries and soldiers, with clarinet and bassoon accompaniment straight out of a New Orleans funeral.
History and humor meet on “Grandmother Song,” where the Stanford-educated Teng is scolded for her decision to leave a Cisco engineer job – “how you gonna raise a family when you’re out on the road with some tattooed boy with a guitar?” her Chinese elder wonders as she recounts her own hardships in hopes that the granddaughter will reconsider. “You’ve got to do this for all of us,” she says.
She’s downright apocalyptic on “No Gringo” and “Radio,” the former a vision of an American migration, with strange fences along the Mexican border (“now the razor wire keeps us out”).
On the latter, San Francisco is depicted as Baghdad-deadly, with car bombs, sidewalk triage and “gunfire at freeway exits, bridges made barricades.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall frames the epic disc-closer “St. Stephen,” whose beginning swirls out of Miles Davis free jazz riffing, and ends with Gregorian chants and a spare guitar. It provides some of the album’s most beautiful moments.
So don’t give up on the long-player yet. Here’s proof that there are artists who still believe being a musician means creating a body of work. And yes, her other three albums are just as good in their own way. But “Inland Territory” is a masterpiece, and it should not be missed – nor should Vienna Teng.
Vienna Teng on Tour – New England and Beyond:
Narrows Center for the Arts – Fall River MA – 8 Jul 09 (Wed) w/ Katie Herzig.
Infinity Hall – Norfolk CT – 9 Jul 09 (Thu) w/ Seth Adam
Newburyport Riverfront Festival – Newburyport MA -10 Jul 09 (Fri) – sold out
Jonathan’s Restaurant – Ogunquit ME -11 Jul 09 (Sat) w/ Katie Herzig
Watercolor Café – Larchmont NY – 15 Jul 09 (Wed) w/ Katie Herzig.
Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center – Westhampton Beach NY – 17 Jul 09 (Fri)
Trio show featuring Ward Williams and Alex Wong. With Ari Hest
Towne Crier Café – Pawling NY – 19 Jul 09 (Sun) w/ Ari Hest
And Just Added – Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry, NH – 3 Oct 09