Vienna Teng’s recording career has been on hiatus for four long years.
Her new album, “Aims,” is her first studio album since Inland Territory, released in 2009. Less piano-focused than past albums, it is effervescent in its execution, drawing from an incredible array of inspirations.
Teng has spent much of her hiatus in Michigan. Formerly a resident of California, she moved across the country to pursue graduate work at the University of Michigan in 2010. While she originally set aside her music career in favor of studying sustainability and business, Teng has since brought music back into her life. Her new album shows definite signs of influence from her degree material, as well as the Occupy movement and Detroit’s continuing struggle to survive and thrive as a city.
Besides moving to Detroit since finishing her master’s degree, Teng has found inspiration in many aspects of the city. The cover art for “Aims” is actually a data map of the changing population of Detroit done by Stephen Von Worley.
The music of “Aims” also reveals a diverse roster of influences. Steeped in pop sensibilities, folky roots and layers of sound, including work with a loop pedal, tunes like “Hymn of Acxiom” also show Teng’s beginnings as a classically trained musician. Feeling like a cross between an a capella chant and a high-tech harmonization of socially conscious lyrics, “Hymn of Acxiom” is both alluring and melancholic.
Vienna Teng is no stranger to social commentary through song. Previous albums have brought about songs like “City Hall,” which expresses joy at the advent of gay marriage in California. “Grandmother Song,” a song that is strongly aware of social class, deals with the experience of oppression.
In “Aims,” she addresses the Occupy movement with the rhythmically charged, “In the 99.” It asks questions like “Now am I so confident I am the one / earning every pretty sum and deserving every toy? / am I selling broken bonds or innovation?” while sympathizing with the plight of the 99 percent: unemployment, sequestration, and the frustration of moving back home after college because no jobs are available. Even with such a loaded issue at hand, the rhythm of the piece carries it forward and makes it an anthem.
“Aims” is not an album with perfunctory words on social and environmental issues; instead, Teng finds the stories at the heart of them. The lyrics are complex and gorgeous, fitting into the music like a finely woven fabric. As a listener, it’s easy to hear the love behind each piece, from the collaborations with Alex Wong and Glen Phillips to the pop feel of “Never Look Away.”
While “Aims” may surprise some longtime Vienna Teng fans, being more influenced by pop and electronica than past albums, the fresh sound should be a welcome new musical offering. This album is very much the product of an artist refusing to stagnate, incorporating new sounds and new experiences into a complex, exhilarating mix of pop, folk and technology.
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