No Divine Intervention
476 · 11 March 04
Vienna Teng: Warm Strangers
After Waking Hour, Vienna Teng's bracingly precocious and frighteningly innocent debut, my wishes for her were obscurity and time. I couldn't have told you exactly what I thought she would do with them. Lots of people do not have any great albums in them. It might be even more heartbreaking to discover that you only have half of a great album in you, and second albums are often when you find out.
But if Vienna Teng never does anything else, she's has now made two albums she will never be embarrassed by. And Warm Strangers, the second one, contains two songs that I think are as great as anyone could hope. One is a dance of life, the other of death, and because these are really two halves of one ballet, they circle each other with hands curling an inch apart.
"Shasta (Carrie's Song)" is the speed and rhythm, a buoyant piano-led strut as remorselessly and incongruously infectious as Tori Amos's "Happy Phantom". The words spin around turns on edge, sounding elusively encouraging, but resolve readily under inspection. There's a girl in a car, and when we talk about traffic and industry we must somehow account for all the songs and stories set in cars leaving scenes, and explain how emotions can be contained in chassis. In this one she's driving away from an abortion clinic with her child still inside her, weighing courage and cowardice, trying to disentangle threats and promises and ghosts and joys. Vienna tells her story in scents, scenery, halves, injunctions and confidences; in the way coffee leaches out of styrofoam into your surety, and your enemies' accusations sneakily learn to whisper to you in your own language; in the way songs are stolen from you, and new lives presented in their stead. The music, radiant and alert, glints off of the tiniest hopes in the words, and makes a survival anthem out of a song that might otherwise hang suspended in indecision.
"Passage" is the shadow haunting, the a cappella self-eulogy of a car-accident victim watching her survivors survive her. If "Shasta" matches the lyric structure of Tori's "Me and a Gun", seeking escape in speed and distance, and shelter in metal and glass, then "Passage" matches its musical spirit, and has the grand inspiration to cross it with Kate's "My Lagan Love" to get an elemental love-song from the dead. Two days, three months, four years, lifetimes pass. The girl's mother, her sister and her lover mourn her, and then miss her, and then gradually swallow her memory into themselves as they must. Her co-workers forget her and thrive, a tree remembers and struggles. This is an easy form to limp through on sentiment and inexorability, and Vienna doesn't. She knows that the survivors are the characters, the narrator only the space they orbit, and that pain changes our courses. She knows there's a mundane irony she has to admit near the end, however unromantic. And she knows how to let the last line echo, and end the song without answering it.
I go through this album in spirals. The second circuit, after I've alternated "Shasta" and "Passage" more times than is probably healthy, swings out through three more. "Harbor" coalesces out of shimmer into confident enchantment like it's emerging from the wistfulness of a century of cypress farming. Pinging piano, gruff bass-hum and shuffling drums measure the spaces between Suddenly Tammy and Garnet Crow, and between Haley Bonar and Jewel, and if the affirmations are simple, then so are the welcoming harbor lights. "Hope on Fire" twitches and ticks and rumbles and saws, remembering Jefferson Airplane and Fleetwood Mac and It's a Beautiful Day, and could be a bracing revival-jukebox b-side for Belle & Sebastian's "I'm a Cuckoo". And "Green Island Lullaby", a regally hypnotic goodnight in pellucid tendrils of Taiwanese, comes adrift from time entirely. This is what it sounds like to not yet have realized your ultimate limitations or your greatest powers, and to just barely begin to comprehend how far apart they are.
My third circuit is the rest of the album, and if Waking Hour showed more potential than achievement, to me, then Warm Strangers still doesn't quite convince me that Vienna has found the soul of her own art. She's a gifted player, personally, and she and Nashville cellist/co-producer David Henry marshal the band's contributions with much more than second-album aplomb, but much of it seems to summarize a genre that I want to believe she's capable of transcending. "Feather Moon" opens the record with a meditative update of Kate Bush's "Breathing", swelling gracefully in and out. "Shine" is a pensive walk down the lane between Loreena McKennitt and Enya's places, and the smoky "Mission Street" might be a backwards universe's young Joni Mitchell learning an old Tori Amos song. "My Medea" rings with October Project composure. The low, hushed "Homecoming (Walter's Song)" wanders into a city diner and comes out as a country piano-ballad. "Anna Rose" tries for Sarah McLachlan's melancholy, and only can't quite lose itself. "The Atheist Christmas Carol" runs out of energy in bland choruses, but means well. If you've forgotten what Kate and Loreena and Enya and Sarah sounded like before they sealed themselves into their own aesthetics, you might want to let Vienna remind you. Many, many young women have cocooned themselves cozily in songs like these, and the only particularly good reason to resent another one is that so many of the others didn't really have a choice.
And Vienna, too, will have only some control over her fortunes. The bad news, maybe, is that I don't believe she is going to be a star. After the first album I had a hope, but after the second I have a guess. Her singing voice too often tries to substitute earnestness for command, too often turns breathy without understanding how to make fragility a confrontation. A year ago I said Vienna was what Vanessa Carlton should hope to be, but I fear that where Vanessa lacks judgment and authority and depth and genius, Vienna lacks glare, and that's the one thing the putrid fog of commercial viability is most incapable of forgiving.
Of course, most of us aren't going to be stars. Or we are, inevitably, but just not fast enough to detect. I said that Vienna Teng would make better albums than Waking Hour if she got the chance, and I'm already right about that. She will make better albums than Warm Strangers, too. That's the part she can attempt to control. If you listen for any of the million nobler reasons than investment assessment, the helplessly human qualities of her voice are precious virtues, not flaws. Her singing sounds younger to me here than it did on the first album, perhaps in contrast to the rapidly maturing production, and maybe that means that she is catching up to herself, or at least understanding her directions of motion. So if I foresee enduring obscurity for her, a career (if she wants it) conducted from inside of niches, then the obverse liberation is that there is no inertia towards concession. She is under mercifully little pressure to have finished growing up yet, and is only thus free to do it well. And if we are fewer, listening, maybe there will be more for each of us to hear.
Julia Darling: Julia Darling
Whether my guesses about star potential are worth much, mind you, is decidedly questionable. After I heard Julia Darling's "Bulletproof Belief" on the radio in 1999, I thought it was going to be an Alanis-level hit. After I saw her play it live, I thought she was going to be an elf diva. The song was defiant and cathartic, and she was from New Zealand and had long, curly black hair, and stood on the stage glowering like she was angry at us for failing to recognize our own impending doom.
But figure 8, Julia's debut, didn't sell enough to suit her BMG-division label, and she was quickly dropped. "Bulletproof Belief" was simple and charging, but too dark for the niche Avril Lavigne eventually occupied (and is now slowly losing to her even more Disneyized successors). Major labels bite through a dozen of these people a year each, looking for the one with the particular nauseating pink filling kids are currently eating. Julia was one of the severed and discarded.
Four years later, the stubborn second-album she made without big-name help, and sold from her own web site for a while, has a small label behind it, and different dreams. Instead of giveaway anthems, this album seethes with darker moods. Julia's voice walks the raspy edge of Christina Amphlett's territory at times, and roars back into mainstream clarity at others. "Let's Do It Again" chops through noise-percussion and guitar-whir to get to a bleary come-on. "Blue" pulses calmly, flirting with the idea of flowering into a Dambuilders song, but in the end sticks to its own cycles. The restless acoustic ballad "Supernatural" watches ghosts ripple the air between subway platforms, and hurries home. "Drunken Liar" brays and slashes, "Lonely Generation" swells and blusters. "End of the World" is valedictory, like a guitar-rock impression of a brass band doing early Radiohead. "Like Water, Like Rain" could be a Tracy Bonham leftover.
But here, again, I take out the songs that sound like I've heard them too often, and there are still several left. "Photographs" is just Julia and her guitar, and sounds weirdly like an older, colder-coast Jewel channeling Steve Hogarth's diffidence. Circling piano and patient snare-taps eventually guide "By Your Side" into tight slam-waltz spirals, Julia slithering through grace-note descents and late-night evasions. "Wake Up" is a lattice masterpiece, whooshing train noise and children's voices behind clinking toy piano and a beleaguered synth arpeggio, over which Julia runs her plaintive itemization of the days of weeks fighting their own emptiness. "Animals" is back to fractured acoustic lullaby, and makes me desperately curious what Julia would do if left to put together a whole album without studio players at all. And "Hidden Track" (which is really called that) almost dispenses even with the guitar, and multi-tracks Julia's voices into the album's sumptuously ethereal conclusion. If this is what rejection engenders, then if we're patient and don't buy this Julia Darling album, either, the next one will be twice again as terrifying and transcendent.
Rachael Sage: Public Record
Rachael Sage is a modern-day Renaissance woman. It says so on her web site, and there's no reason to doubt her candor. Unless you count the fact that the site also claims she has twice won a songwriting contest whose name Google can find only on other sites that regurgitate her press blurb. Or the sheer number of ostensibly unrelated sites on which you can find reiterations of every piece of her promotional material. Or its volume. Or the eloquent absence from her own site of the New York Times article revealing that her father is a world-famous shoe designer and she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars (his?) making five "independent" records on what would otherwise appear to be a gamely struggling DIY label. All of which tend to suggest that it might be more accurate to say that she's a modern-day baron's spoiled daughter with a toy career and way too much glitter make-up.
But then, what's more objectionable: Francis Ford Coppola's daughter getting to slouch into the family business, or the fact that the Academy couldn't manage to nominate a single other female American director in all of preceding history? I don't trust Rachael Sage any more than I trust Sofia Coppola, but nobody is asking me to, not even me. Maybe their fathers bought them opportunities, but they still had to do something with the gifts. I thought Lost in Translation was terrific, and terrific in ways that maybe we only get to see if it bypasses the usual business process. Rachael Sage writes all her own songs, she sings them, she plays many instruments, she co-produces. Public Record is her fifth album, and third in three years, and her catalog is now one of the more impressively consistent demonstrations of prismatic neo-folk-pop craft. She sings like a cross between Jane Siberry and Ani DiFranco, plays piano like a cross between Tori Amos and a dump truck full of Life Savers, and writes no less lucidly for whatever contingencies fund her records or facilitate their frequency. Her songs sparkle and chime unclutteredly over cheerful drum-loop restlessness. She is exactly what Vanessa Carlton could have matured into, and what Emm Gryner could do with more money, and what Suzanne Vega might have done with less. These are joyful, fizzy, luxuriant records, and I'm perfectly happy to buy them. If her father pays for their creation, good for him. In a world with better popular judgment and fairer rewards, he wouldn't have to. In a better world, we would all spend more time playing. And if money can't let a parent give their child a world closer to the one they deserve, then what good is it?