Artist: Vienna Teng
Title: Dreaming Through The Noise
Genre: piano singer-songwriter mellow pop
I heard the song Feather Moon from 2004's Warm Strangers on one of those indie acoustic radio shows that play on Sunday mornings and I was immediately enchanted by it--so I went to the record store to purchase it (this was before iTunes). They didn't have it, but they did have 2002's Waking Hour, so I purchased that instead and was, you guessed it, immediately enchanted. I've followed Vienna Teng's career closely ever since.
Teng describes her music as "chamber folk." Rooted in straightforward piano-pop, DTtN weaves together jazz arrangements, a dollop of bluegrass, and middle-eastern melodies to create a collection of fascinating stories. Topics range from renting a shitty apartment (1 Br / 1 Ba) to a dutiful housewife blowing the whistle on her husband's sketchy accounting (Whatever You Want) to couples lining up to get newly-legalized marriage licenses (City Hall). The album closer, Recessional, has what are in my opinion the best lyrics ever written. A sample:
She dreams through the noise, her weight against me, face pressed into the corduroy grooves. Maybe it means nothing... but I'm afraid to move.
And while I still dearly love her first two records, Dreaming Through The Noise is the first Vienna Teng album that feels completely whole. It has just enough production to give it a nice layer of polish and cohesion. By happenstance, I've heard her speak about this and she thinks some of the songs suffered by being forced to all share the same sonic space and mood. Her follow up Inland Territory was a reaction to this, in which she explicitly set out to write a "mix tape" of an album. By further happenstance, I was living in LA when this album came out and got to see her play it twice. I saw her do a preview show where she played the whole thing solo on piano and then a regular tour show as a jazz trio--both in an intimate little club setting.
Teng's music is intelligent, nuanced, impeccably precise, and astonishingly beautiful, and DTtN is her at her absolute best. It's hopeful and heartbreaking all at once, and full of little surprises that will catch your attention even after a dozen listens.
Further listening: If not for my pesky one-album-per-artist rule, Inland Territory would certainly be on this list. It's more experimental and more sonically diverse, and while it's damn near perfect, it's not quite as damn near perfect. Her previous albums mentioned above are great, but they feel a little underproduced, and her final album Aims is a little overproduced for my taste, but still quite good.