The Same Sense of Wanting
424 · 13 March 03
Vienna Teng: Waking Hour
I'm not on very many mailing lists anymore. My email filtering sorts them out into separate folders, for clarity, and I recently noticed that I have four different strategies I employ on them. The first, and presumably most sensible, involves reading each message sent to the list, considering its assertions and questions, and then actively contributing something of my own to the interesting conversation it advances. This is basically the point of being on a mailing list, at least of the sort I even bother considering. I am currently using this strategy on zero mailing lists. The second strategy involves scanning each message cursorily, under the standing assumption that I will probably want to delete it unscrutinized, looking for stray reasons not to and occasionally finding them. I am using this strategy for one mailing list at the moment, the only nominal virtual community through which I've actually met people and made friends (and continue to, despite the fact that the band whose music the list is supposedly devoted to does not technically still exist). There are people on that list I care about, some of whom are really only part of my life through the list, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I want to argue about politics or even copyright law with them, these days. I used to read more, I used to post more. But I'm still there, watching the messages pass, part of their flow even when I don't interrupt it much. Arguably this is as much engagement as a fake community really merits, however much more it claims to demand or reward.
The third strategy involves deleting each message, one by one. The fourth strategy involves deleting them in bulk. When you get to the point where you are filtering a mailing list into its own folder solely to make it easier to delete a whole day's unopened traffic with the fewest possible keystrokes, it's time to think about unsubscribing. Thus, recently, ended the last lingering vestige of the idea that I might take "professional" Scrabble seriously, and the always-unlikely notion that I was going to spend a lot of time beta-testing a program that renders imaginary landscapes, and my overstated commitments to a handful of excellent bands whose music I can love without needing to feel involved in their daily lives. Two mailing lists have survived this cull under the protection of the third strategy, although one of them is a college alumni list that rarely generates more than two or three messages in a month, and almost never any discussion. The other is Ecto.
Ecto's current state is not quite as tenuous as Loudfans, since Happy Rhodes, Ecto's official central subject, has not yet taken her noninvolvement with music from the level of not making it to, as has Scott Miller, the level of claiming an intent to continue not making it indefinitely. And where Loudfans has compensated for the lack of Loud Family material by evolving into a music-positive but not music-limited discussion list with a rough, collectively assembled sense of self, Ecto has merely grown from being a Happy Rhodes list to being a list about the styles of music Happy plays to being a list about female singer/songwriters from the art/folk/pop/punk segment of the stylistic spectrum, preferably commercially underappreciated ones (supplemented by sporadic discussions about television shows featuring women who probably would be female singer/songwriters from the art/folk/pop/punk segment of the stylistic spectrum were it not for the small matter of their not being singers or songwriters). What this usually reduces to, statistically, is young white women who do not rock very hard. I say this solely in the spirit of description. I like a lot of music by young white women who do not rock very hard, and it is not a segment the list had to carve out by any kind of exclusion. And not all the women are young, not all of them are white, and not all of them never rock. But I scan the subject lines, and delete the messages, and don't do much reading. I've been on Ecto for a really long time, and have demonstrated amply to myself that there is no drippily banal twenty-four-year-old self-accompanying poet so obscure or undistinguished that somebody won't write in to Ecto to enthuse about having seen them playing in a Starbucks in Tucson. I don't have time to track down all their earnestly home-recorded and self-semi-released albums, and I don't have the energy to listen to them even if I had them. No doubt there is some great music being made this way, and a lone mention on Ecto will be my closest approach to it. And I will delete the message, and miss my chance.
But sometimes the first lone mention isn't the last. Ecto adopts people. Several active members run house-concert series, and informal evangelism programs, and after a while even the subject lines begin to achieve critical mass. I discovered Jewel this way, and Veda Hille, and Susan Court, and Emily Bezar, and probably half a dozen others for whom I've forgotten Ecto was my source. The latest is Vienna Teng. There are other ways I might have come across Vienna Teng. NPR and CNN have done spots on her, and she appeared on Letterman, and one of her songs was used on Ed and Tower put her album on listening stations. I missed all of these, but I saw her name on Ecto so many times that I eventually forgot I didn't know her music, and once I'd forgotten that, the fact that I didn't have her album began feeling like negligence.
I have it, now, and can report. If you haven't heard of Vienna Teng yet, and are the sort of person who might wish to have, you will probably get more chances. She is destined, I feel pretty sure, for more fame than Ecto subject lines. What did discovering Jewel through Ecto win me? A few months head start? For every Veda Hille I wouldn't have heard of, it often seems to me, there's a Kristin Hersh I would, and a Tara McLean I might have been spared. So who but the most obsessive need so many of these? But then again, I found out about Jewel early enough to hear her yodel at an unamplified Newbury Comics in-store before anybody had ever hired her a stylist, and if you didn't, I probably believe in her more than you do, and isn't a little more faith a treasure?
Vienna Teng is twenty four. She does not rock very hard. She sounds as white as anybody born and raised in California can be expected to. She plays piano and keyboards, and sings. On most of these songs she has a band. She is what Vanessa Carlton should hope to sound like with a few years more practice and wisdom. Maybe Vienna couldn't play this music without Tori and Sarah having come before her, and Joni and Kate before them, and on some songs she sounds understandably overwhelmed by this debt. She is, as of yet, only a poet for a few words at a time. Some of these arrangements get away from her. The business hasn't chewed her up, but she has tried to make a record that doesn't sound like she's twenty-four and new at this, and in doing so hasn't changed my opinion that I'd rather hear twenty-four-year-olds discovering their own erratic magic than twenty-four-year-olds trying to imagine what it will feel like to have forgotten the rush. But the piano runs on "Gravity" glitter like starlight off of wave crests, and Vienna's voice dips into the troughs like a buoy clinging to the water. The choruses of "Between" leap into fluttery falsetto with some of Loreena McKennitt's austere aplomb. She pushes at "Drought" and sounds charmingly unbalanced when it pushes back at her. "Enough to Go By" is relaxed, lilting folk pop. "Eric's Song" is episodically hushed and soaring, and I bet he's proud of her. The cautious "Soon Love Soon", like a simultaneous dream of one day joining Clannad and one day marrying your exotic bongo drummer, builds purposefully towards magnificence. And "Lullabye for a Stormy Night" is unadorned and eloquent enough to make me think Vienna hears some of the same things I hear.
And I hope this album doesn't make Vienna Teng famous, after all. I hope the press, this time, turns out to be a fluke. She will make better albums than this, if she gets the chance, and neither fame nor money will help much. Belief will help. Ecto will help. A few people buying this record and learning to love some of these songs will help. You can help, if you want to, by caring about potential and recognizing the difference between potential and achievement. You can help by listening to some of her songs at her web site, and making up your own mind. I say she sings and plays well. Her record label is small, and if you give them money, probably neither of them will do anything hateful with it. If you fall in love with these songs, even the ones that aren't ready for it yet, the act will improve you both.
Martina Sorbara: The Cure for Bad Deeds
If I knew what day Martina Sorbara's birthday is, I could tell you whether she has turned twenty-four yet. Soon, if not. She is Canadian. She plays guitar, and if her press is to be believed, she even makes the guitars, which seems like a level of intent craftsmanship that won't necessarily manifest itself in the finished product.
The craft most evident in the finished product is listening to records. Or, if she didn't actually listen to them, intuiting them. "Bonnie & Clyde" is unmistakably Jewel singing over pattering drums, humming cello and pinging piano. "Casanova" steals its verse mannerisms straight from Ani DiFranco (most obviously the delivery and text of the couplet "Fun and conversation versus / Good old-fashioned lubrication"). "Undone" swaggers stiffly, playing Jewel against Kelly Hogan in a kind of decades-compressed Grace of My Heart sweep. But "All in Good Time" is like Vanessa's "A Thousand Miles" sanded back down to its natural color, and "Claudia" is like an inspired impression of what "A Thousand Miles" might have sounded like if Patty Griffin had written it in a violent fit of cheer. "Eggs Over Easy" is goopy mock-jazz, but the choruses of "Call Wolf" revive some of the surge of Melissa Ferrick's Massive Blur. "Cherry Road" is mindfully restrained acoustic-pop worthy of Beth Nielsen Chapman, and although "Better Man" seems to me to wander off into the same kind of theatrical digression that sometimes sidetracks Neko Case, and "This Ship" feels like a Dar Williams song in a rock costume a couple sizes too big, "The End of the World" is back to a cross between Jewel and Ani that ought to have Melissa Ferrick feeling relieved that Martina's guitars don't appear to be designed to handle much abuse.
But this is, in the end, an album I really support on the strength of a song and a half. The half song is a remix, labeled "Bonnie & Clyde II", of the opening track, which has the terrific idea of processing the drums so that in much of the song they sound exactly like the ones in Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill", a reliable path into my affections. The whole song is "Once I Was Mighty", whose quiet verses blur into grand chorus crescendos with much of the flair of Dar Williams' "As Cool As I Am". And if, elsewhere, it's not clear whether Martina understands the mistakes Jewel made, then at least she still has a chance not to make a Spirit, and if she hasn't quite equaled Dar's best pop moment, then I'm still having more fun listening to this than to the new one on which Dar herself comes no closer.
Kathryn Williams: Old Low Light
And maybe it should diminish Waking Hour and The Cure for Bad Deeds that I persist in juxtaposing them with an album that was made by an artist only a few years older but an order of magnitude more assured, but that's not what I feel happening. Somehow, in fact, the quiet certainties of Kathryn Williams' intimate recordings, propelled by Jonny Bridgwood's rubbery double bass, Alex Tustin's delicately brushed drums and Kathryn's own guitars, for me serve to suggest what Vienna and Martina might be capable of, and thus Old Low Light becomes an integral part of my fond tolerance for the other two records. We take albums apart when we might be far better off putting them together. If Vienna's album is poised, and Martina's brasher, then Old Low Light can be an ingenious synthesis that flips the two albums' commercial production ambitions out of phase to cancel each other, leaving a record that seems superficially understated by comparison, but secretly (instructively?) harbors much more sophisticated ideas. Disassembled into noises and moods, this album sounds, as did Little Black Numbers, like an uneasy truce between the Clientele, Stina Nordenstam and the estate of Nick Drake. But these songs no more beg to be disassembled into parts than Calder mobiles or Shaker furniture. The first half of "Little Black Numbers" is nothing but Kathryn's voice and a restless bass clomp, but the remarkable thing about the guitar plucks, string tremors, trumpet sighs and multi-tracked backing vocals that join in towards the end is how clear it is, once the bass finally drops out, how much the other elements keyed on it. "White, Blue and Red" contains the core of a bouncy jazz-folk-pop song, but indulges it only for the duration of two short choruses. The mesmerized, pacing "Mirrorball" and the spiky, shifting "Swimming" both sound like an alternate universe's post-Richard Linda Thompson songs in which it becomes clear that Richard was only ever the guitar player. "Devices" is languid and loose, but its threads twine and bind with deceptive strength. "Daydream and Saunter" tags along ten beats slower than it should be able to sustain, but the springy "Beatles" could be the most astonishing possible response from the blonde outside Dar's kitchen window, who turns out to have all the individual characteristics Dar imagined, and yet not even the slightest need of her defense or help. "Wolf" lurches squarely like a half-unraveled old Lida Husik song, "On for You" keeps threatening to turn into "Hotel California" in pique, and "3am Phonecall" is what a sing-along becomes when you abruptly realize you're alone.
And although I'm telling you that this album makes best sense as a whole, and that these three albums make yet another sense as a trio, I still have my choices for highlights. The quiet one is "Tradition", just slowly tolling piano chords, Kathryn's breathy voice, a couple strings and dense background ambience. "Driving home from the wedding, / Feeling static from everything moving"; "Everywhere tradition draws circles to define". "Bridge Over Troubled Water" lingers in tendrils of fog, and somehow the wind tracks the car so that the air is silent and still outside the windows as you move. Vienna and Martina were there with handsome and forgettable boys, everyone in dresses they'll probably never wear again, drunk on other people's life promises. Kathryn watched from the door to the balcony, the night cool behind her and the moon's glow a reminder of the oldest, lowest light. The kids take the subway home to walk-ups and day jobs; the adults drive the other direction, out into the countryside, knowing that whether their houses are that way or not, they need a few minutes away from noises and lights in order to be able to trust their happiness. And then "No One Takes You Home" is the masterpiece and culmination of this entire arbitrary set, six minutes as pulsing and darkly redemptive as anything since The Velvet Underground & Nico, harmonies and cellos and tambourines whirling giddily around despair on the brink of collapse. Paul McCartney meant his question about love songs to be rhetorical, but there's actually an answer. Nobody needs love songs, like nobody needs good albums by musicians who might one day make great ones, or all these songs that sound like songs somebody else already sang. That is, lovers need love songs, but lovers have the power to make love songs out of anything, so nobody needs to write ones for that purpose. But we need great albums, and sometimes we have the power to make them out of good ones. And we need new songs to remind us of all the old lessons. As the ballrooms and promenades empty of the lovers and the lost, in fact, what's left of us is precisely the loneliness that does need songs. The real love songs aren't for the people who are in love without them, so all they ever need to promise is "Your night will come". The real love songs are what it feels like looking out your window at a city, or an ocean, or the next wall, wondering how tomorrow could ever be different, scared even if a part of you is already living through it. The real love songs are about the moment you turn away, from the window or the computer or your fears or your old self, back towards where the streetlight or the moonlight or your dreams will or won't find her sleeping. Outside my window, here, two empty taxis drive past the Portuguese restaurant. Her car is in my parking space, her watch on my bureau. There are only a couple mounds of snow still in the street. These records end, I take the earphones out. I turn as slowly as the earth, listening to her breathe.