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Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: Vienna Teng - Inland Territory

Vienna Teng - Inland Territory
2009, Zoe/Rounder Records

Vienna Teng has truly come into her own. You might think I'm a little late to the game with that statement, as her first three albums have all received critical acclaim and chart attention, but her fourth album, Inland Territory, transcends being and growth into the philosophical concept of Becoming. Over the course of the twelve songs presented on Inland Territory you can hear Teng break free from the bonds on insecurity and fear and fully take flight in glorious musical skies.

Teng starts off in ethereal beauty with The Last Snowfall, giving an almost church-like feel to a representation of the beauty of nature. Think medieval Sarah McLachlan and you have an idea where this is headed. Teng bridges Ethereal and Active rock with unusual sounds on White Light. The song never loses musicality or the warm essence of Teng's voice, but there's a definite wildcard feel here that keeps the listener engaged. Antebellum is a deeply symbolic look at an argument with a loved one. A Victorian meets Broadway flare with Ari Hest sitting in on vocals for a brilliant duet.

Kansas finds Teng painting in broad brush strokes an oil painting in music. It's a scene colored in emotional tincture and deep shadows, wrapped around a gorgeous melody. The stark arrangement simultaneously suggests distance and the intimate touch of memory. Teng continues to surprise and amaze on In Another Life, using the gritty artistic flare of Kurt Weill to explore the concept of rebirth. While there isn't a bad song on the album, the next two are so dizzyingly good you might need to sit down. Grandmother Song is Teng's first real try at touching on her Chinese/American heritage, memorializing her Grandmother in a magical composition where her essence comes to life for the listener. The song is very well written, and Teng's voice is amazing, but it's the force of her personality and her love for her Grandmother that really make this fly.

Likewise, Stray Italian Greyhound has classic written all over it. It explores the fact that sometimes love finds us when we least expect it (or sometimes even want it). Teng's wonderfully poetic imagery explodes in your brain; "Oh no, not now. Please, not now. I just settled into the glass half empty, made myself at home so why now?” Teng goes on to explore redemption and stability in another in theological terms in the intelligently and beautifully written Augustine. No Gringo paints a picture of a border crossing that's so stark and full of angst it can't have been made up. The story is poignant and places the shoe on the other foot, so to speak.

Watershed represents the earth speak back to those of us who live here without all of the cliché and political posturing generally embedded in such representations. Deeply symbolic and layered in orchestration, Watershed contrasts Earth (Teng's voice) and Water (piano) throughout, sometimes peacefully, sometimes in force, but always working together to give life to the song. Perhaps the darkest moment on Inland Territory is Radio, a dark fantasy that involves a bus, a suicide bomber and civil war in the sunny streets of San Francisco. The story itself is veiled in imagery and seems fantastical at first, but the steps that take it there are all too plausible. This story is wrapped in a musical shawl of unusual keys changes and resolutions, with an incessantly rhythmic yet inconsistent accompaniment on water glasses. This disturbing moment is tempered by the loss and then joy buried deep in St. Stephen's Cross; a love story set against the political realities of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Happiness is always balanced by darker forces even in the closing moments of Inland Territory. Whether knowingly or not, Yang and Yin ply their forces throughout.

Inland Territory isn't an album; it's an experience. It's not an easy listen if you want to get the most out of it, but Teng has constructed a musical creation that can be many things to many people. If you're in it for the pure beauty and radiance of sound, Inland Territory will please you. If you want to think with your music, Teng will not only meet your needs but challenge you always one step further. In the process, Teng has created one of the most beautiful, thought provoking and musically complete albums of the year. If you buy only one CD/download in 2009, make it Inland Territory, a Wildy's World Certified Desert Island Disc.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)

You can learn more about Vienna Teng at or You can purchase Inland Territory as either a CD or download from

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