Vienna Teng Continues to ‘Level Up’

Graduate Division

Words escape me as I try to express how impressed I am with Vienna Teng, who performed two back-to-back concerts with multi-instrumentalists Alex Wong and Jordan Hamlin at The Independent on November 16. 

Vienna Teng’s musical style may be described loosely as folk or indie pop, but these labels aren’t quite adequate for her unique fusion of folk, pop, electronica, classical piano and a cappella.  More impressively, her lyrics are sincere and intelligent, covering diverse social and philosophical issues in addition to the earnest ballads typical of her music. 

“City Hall,” her opening song Saturday night, is a beautiful example of what makes Vienna Teng one of the most underrated contemporary singer-songwriters. It’s a delicate, but jubilant, tribute to love that defies sexual orientation.  “You’ve never seen a sight so fine,” she sings in the chorus, “As the love that’s gonna shine at City Hall.”

Most of the other songs performed during the concert were from her recently released fifth album, Aims.  The energetic new album diverges significantly from her earlier compositions.  It has more of an electronic-pop influence, as the artists explore different musical styles and sounds, using instruments as diverse as a grand piano and a French horn (by Hamlin) and even plastic cups in “Copenhagen (Let Me Go).”  It’s fun to listen to and even more fun to watch.

But the greatest strength of this album? It’s still grounded in her strong vocals and thoughtful lyrics, which have only improved with time. 

Thematically, these new songs are reflective of Vienna Teng’s experiences in grad school; for the past couple of years, she has been studying at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.  (As a grad student myself, I love her even more for this.)

“Level Up” is a pep talk for the weary grad student. The jazzy “Close to Home” explores a psychological disorder she read about in a journal. “Landsailor” is her token environmental sustainability song — at least, that’s the way she introduced it, with a chuckle.

That was the best part of Saturday night’s concert, and the best part of any Vienna Teng concert.  Sure, she’s crazy talented and intelligent, but more importantly for a live show, you can tell she’s having fun. 

She is so funny and comfortable on stage.  She happily “geeked out” about the looping pedal and vocal harmonizer and the button that creates her “Barry White voice.” 

She explained the significance of her songs and invited the audience to clap along, as in “Grandmother Song,” a lively translation of her grandmother’s disapproval of her career choice.  On Saturday, the chorus of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” unexpectedly emerged from her grandmother’s warnings. 

Vienna Teng ended with a soulful mash-up of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  It was appropriate, because you’ll definitely lose yourself a little in her performance.