Issue #172: Aims by Vienna Teng

July 29, 2019

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Aims by Vienna Teng
Released On September 24, 2013
Released By Soltruna Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Doug Nunnally

Trent Reznor famously wondered, “What have I become?”

It was a haunting reflection in a despondent, almost disturbing track aptly titled “Hurt,” and yet it somehow became a cultural touchstone that lurked in the back of society’s mind. That 1995 song came to define a large number of people living in the apex of society, worried about their own personal shortcomings and oblivious to the world around them as their own life spiraled out of control. The fact that “Hurt” reached a larger audience in 2002 through the voice of an iconic, but faded artist shows the limitless power the four-word question contained, able to cross two time periods existing in a connected, but wildly different reality.

Fast-forward another decade. Could this be a battle cry for life in today’s world? Initial reaction may be to say yes: What have we become? I don’t think anyone could argue the importance of asking that question, though the answer is not an easy pill to swallow. Unfortunately, our current condition is not unrecognizable. Not in the slightest. Every vice and misdeed we condemn and assail has come about incrementally. Prosperity led to greedy apathy, devotion mutated into blatant impiety, and worst of all, misguided prejudice snowballed into unrestrained vitriol.

It’s in this world that we find ourselves torn, looking for answers and comfort in all areas of life: relationships, entertainment, education, and, perhaps above the rest, the arts. Some offer escape, some offer catharsis, and some, like Vienna Teng’s 2013 record Aims, offer both, with Aims being a rare case of a work of art that takes escape and catharsis to new heights, offering a brilliant version of whichever you need.

On the surface, this record is glorious pop music, evoking the best of radio airplay as evident by the first three songs in the tracklist: “Level Up” providing a dynamic inspirational pop message, “In The 99” designing an intricately layered club hit, and “Landsailor” constructing a modern folk daydream. If that’s all you’re in search of from a record, then you could stop your search and be satisfied beyond your wildest dreams by the musical tapestry of Aims, especially considering the most ambitious, catchy, and charming moments of the record come after those first three songs, a trio that would be enough to make any record “great” on their own.

So, in that regard, Aims can offer you a great escape from the reality around you. But look below the surface just slightly and you’ll see that Aims also offers catharsis within that reality, and perhaps even a means to overcome it.

“Level Up” may seem inspirational, but it’s lyrics serve more as an actual call to action, specifically as it ends on the line “This is the day, no other” after four minute of stirring musical motivation brought about by a bridge of frenzied electronics and rousing words (“If you are afraid, give more / If you are alive, give more now / Everybody here has seams and scars / So what? Level up!”). “In The 99” may fly by as an innocuous club hit, but it contains a timely activist message, rooting its message on the side of the Occupy movement with some choice lyrics (“Am I selling broken bonds or innovation? / Someone’s yelling ‘Get a job!’ out of a Lincoln”) and clever wordplay (“Am I the one to praise?” becoming “So why am I the one to praise?” and then flipped into “Oh, I am not the one who preys”).

Concluding the opening trio is “Landsailor,” perhaps the most accessible and ambitious song on the record. Floating on the back of a timeless folk melody relayed through breezy strings and robust vocals, the song is a veiled thesis for sustainability, which coincidentally falls in line with the environmental science Master’s Teng earned from the University Of Michigan (not to mention her current role as a Director of sustainable community solutions). The song perfectly marries the pop and folk trends of the 2010s into a charming, radio-friendly sound, but also perfectly addresses an alarming trend of the 2010s: the rise of instant consumerism. Here, Teng and Glen Phillips (from Toad The Wet Sprocket) take different viewpoints on the way our society’s consumption has evolved, something that’s disturbed the balance of nature, almost irreparably so (“Oh I am altered now for good / Shield these eyes no more”), flipping the song from a warning into shocking realism.

Teng follows that thematic opus by continuing to explore opposing viewpoints, this time split between two songs with “Close To Home” and “The Hymn Of Acxiom.” In “Close To Home,” the dramatic, orchestral driven R&B tune rails against the idea of monetizing people’s lives (“We won’t be sold / Any song from your book of lies / Language we don’t recognize as part of our own / Leave us alone”), while “Hymn Of Acxiom” takes the narrative voice of the Acxiom corporation, a major player in the privacy wars and data breaches that have come to exemplify the complicated plight of modern life.

It’s telling that Teng constructs the most stunning piece of music on Aims around what is basically a coded shareholders meeting, with CEOs and board members justifying their purpose in monitoring and mining everything we do. And make no mistake – “The Hymn Of Acxiom” is stunning from every possible vantage point, and it towers over every track on this record from the sheer gall of its creation and execution. There’s just something about the idea of corrupting a hymnal into a detailed cautionary tale about data mining that seems revolutionary, especially considering it was conceived several, several years before this was a tangible threat. For Vienna Teng, there exists no better example of her brilliance and importance as an activist and artist than the music and message contained within “The Hymn Of Acxiom.”

Aims certainly keeps it sight pointed high, but Teng also goes to great lengths to ground this record, pulling it off remarkably with her striking emotion. Fiery when necessary, it’s also the tender moments that make this album so captivating, specifically when she follows up on her data diatribe with the weary “Oh Mama No,” a song that tugs at your heartstrings with poignant truths until you want to reach for the phone to call your own mother. You can pick out that lines that speak most to your experience, but personally, this one hits particularly hard: “So Mama learns your tribal lingo / Tolerates the time between calls / Catalogues the years and makes a note of all your endless goings-on.”

That song may break your heart, and so could “Flyweight Love,” but Teng does her best to fill the latter with the most ornate melodies in existence. The end result is a nuanced but truthful observation of long-distance love (“How all our times apart / Have become our vows”) that still contains the activist spirit of the record (“Took a crowd down the avenue / To send a senator home right / Going viral on the handheld screen / I’m the diode, you’re the kerosene”). In telling that story, Teng creates what could be considered the highlight of the record, a multifaceted pop song that’s just overflowing with luxurious harmonies and unforgettable refrains, while still containing some dramatic turns and intriguing depth.

And then Teng closes the record with another trio of songs that symmetrically line up with the first three tracks: “The Breaking Light” mirroring the roots nature of “Landsailor,” “Never Look Away” occupying the dance floor alongside “In The 99,” and “Goodnight New York” doing as much to send you off on a strong note as “Level Up” did to bring you in. And each are as sophisticated as the opening three tracks, with “Goodbye New York” in particular serving as an ode to the city and perhaps a way of life too, depending on your outlook, which, warning, could very well be altered by this record.

On Aims, Teng pulled off something truly impressive, providing detailed and thought-provoking commentary on our society and culture, while also creating impeccable melodies housed within opulent compositions that resonate deeply within our souls. It’s a truly sublime pop but also a mobilizing call to action, with both realities intertwined at the core of the record, impeccably reflecting the pained reality of our current time.

Whereas Reznor defined a generation in 1994 by wondering what he’s become, Teng seeks to define the current generation with a different slant, offered up bluntly on “Copenhagen (Let Me Go)” which somehow translates from climate change advocacy into the biggest takeaway from the entire record.

“Call out what we’ve become,” she nimbly declares in the opening moments.

The time for wondering is long gone. The time for action is clearly now.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Modernized Renaissance artist excelling concurrently in music, science, and, most importantly, advocacy.

“Hopepunk:” The term used to describe a genre of multiple forms of media which “weaponize optimism” and fight against oppressive forces using positive and gentle means. This is the term I learned while looking into the background of Vienna Teng’s critically lauded but yet relatively unknown 2013 album Aims. It’s a term one writer used to describe the opening track, “Level Up,” as it invites you to come out, stand up, and use any means necessary to face your fears, begin again — it doesn’t matter. The point is you getting off your ass and it’s hard not to. The high-tempo pop song could almost be an electronica dance floor banger if not for the sophisticated message, the wonderful piano melody, and the soaring power of Vienna Teng’s wide-ranging classical vocal style. It’s too good, too well-crafted, too thoughtful for a sketchy club dance floor. Teng’s lyrics throughout the album are deeply considered and well-crafted arrangements. There is no filler, no sketches or throw-away pop anthems. It’s clear especially on repeat listens just how much each song is its own unique project as though they were all conceived of in entirely different contexts and then were brought together and collected for the record. Among her ilk — artists like Lisa Loeb, Tori Amos, Amanda Palmer, and Amy Grant come to mind — Teng separates herself by having chosen to eschew the opportunity/trap of pop stardom and yet notably, that doesn’t stop her from consistently producing great albums. Aims has no specific genre or style and can’t be easily pigeonholed beyond the observation that it’s pop music with a broad appeal. My first question upon hearing “Landsailor” follow soon after “Level Up” was to wonder why this record wasn’t huge. She’s not likely to be the sort of person who would wear a meat dress to an award show, but there’s enough talent and production quality in these songs that record labels had to have been taking notice. Turns out it didn’t matter because Teng had other priorities. You have to respect that. Music, like all sorts of other interests, is just one of the things the artist wanted to explore and she does it mainly on weekends. Situations like this, of course, exist. The planet’s record library is full of artists who did great work which the lack of a marketing endeavour would leave basically underappreciated. It’s with great pleasure that I discovered this one. The sense of optimism which arises from that first track carries through even on the more somber, melodramatic numbers like “Oh Mama No.” The beauty for me is that she avoids ever feeling cheesy or contrived. At no point does she stoop to being manipulative or exploitive of genre tropes or songwriting cliches. The world has changed a lot since 2013 and we need that sincere hopefulness and beauty in all its forms. I’m grateful for having been given an opportunity to help bring such an overlooked thing of beauty to light. Fall asleep listening to hyper-autotuned “The Hymn Of Acxiom” and I guarantee you’ll wake up with a brighter sun than has greeted you in some time.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

Finally, my first post for Off Your Radar and I couldn’t have been more excited as I turned on Vienna Teng’s Aims album. I’m the type that doesn’t do any research into the artists I see or review, I tend to just jump right in, so let’s go for it! A little pop, a little indie, and a whole of passion, I was instantly hooked by this album. There’s something soulful and painful about the vocals, yet something so inspiring and uplifting about the words they are singing and the upbeat nature of the songs. Think a little Tegan & Sara meets the ’80s synth styling of, well, any ’80s band that goes heavy on the synth, all wrapped up in a bow of the makings of an uber popular indie pop band. Although certain elements of the instrumentation stand out, nothing seems to steal the spotlight as easily as Vienna’s stunningly beautiful vocal. They easily scale mountains as they hit the highest peaks and lowest valleys without hesitation. The tempos and stylizations may not all stay constant as the album moves through upbeat songs to more heartbreak worthy tracks, but one thing does stay constant: Vienna’s true talent and passion reigns supreme through every one of these eleven tracks. Aims is one of those albums that you can put on repeat and either have playing in the background as you go on about your life or an album that you can really sit down and dive into. There are so many elements that stand out and really catch your ear as something new and interesting but, as a whole, the album is super easy to listen to and almost brings a sense of calm over you. I’m very much a concert addict and tend to judge a recording by how badly I want to see it live. I would absolutely love to see Vienna Teng live after listening to this and I plan on spending majority of the rest of my day digging into her discography and getting to know this amazing musician a little bit more.

Langen Goldstien (@girlatrockshows)
Queen Of Everything Loud & Nostalgic

“Dynamite the dam on the flow,” sings Vienna Teng on “Level Up,” the first track of Aims, and I just love the deliberate physicality of those “D’s” and the message to forcibly remove the obstacles within you. Then another killer line: “Lord we are all cinders / From a fire burning long ago.” It’s true — we are stardust, after all — so make the most of the time you have. Teng certainly is, with her comp sci degree from Stanford and her MS and MBA from U Michigan. Then there’s her musical career, which is mostly self-directed and produced and has taken her around the world. Then comes “Someone is learning the colors of all your moods /To (say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood” in “The Hymn Of Acxiom,” ironically sung from the point of view of a data-mining company. I saw their logo just last night, in a PowerPoint presentation created by Cambridge Analytica included in a new Netflix documentary called The Great Hack. The movie describes how Cambridge Analytica used personal data from companies like Facebook and Acxiom to move “persuadable” voters towards voting Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It’s guaranteed that no one else was writing songs about data privacy in 2013 — or even now. The seductive and slick a cappella approach she employs, paired with the idea of taking comfort that someone (or something) is paying attention to everything in your life (if even for nefarious ends) is deeply ironic in a way perhaps only encountered on Steely Dan albums. That’s high praise coming from me! “The Hymn Of Axciom” is followed by “Oh Mama No,” the most profound and perfect wedding of words and music on the album. Guided by delicate fingerpicked guitar, Teng sings of what sounds like a fragile relationship between mother and daughter, cut short when the former gets sick, maybe with dementia. The line that gets me is “And then one day / In the boxes upon boxes / Grieve, give, go,” taking me right back to packing up my mom’s apartment, where she and my father had lived for 50 years, after her death from cancer. Part nightmare, part comedy, and part journey through a hall of memories, it’s a necessary rite of passage that I would wish on no one. You may never truly know your parents until after they’re gone and you go through all their stuff. I feel like Teng and I could have a long conversation about that experience. Since that will likely never happen, I’ll just talk back to her album, and listen with gratitude to someone who understands.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Click here to watch the stirring video for “Level Up.”

Come for the uplifting message. Stay for the prosthetic leg breakdancing.

Under the guise of a sprawling white farmhouse lies a wonderful children’s museum. On a busy Kirkwood street, the historic façade hides an updated playhouse geared toward the arts, sciences, and language. It’s a rite of passage to glide down the three-story slide, and taking a photo with the children statues outside is a must for every visit. Down on the ground floor, years ago, there was an exhibit about movement. Next to the wall of pins and needles that would freeze your movement in a momentary tribute of flat-headed nails was a laser room. Inside this black room your movement was recorded and displayed across the LED walls in a haze of color. Arms, hair, legs, all left trails of orange, blue, red, and green across the screens displayed both inside and outside the room. Parents and bigger siblings could watch their little people’s romps captured in a trail of color to correspond with the laughter coming from inside. Watching their stories was a lot like listening to Vienna Teng’s Aims. With layers of sound, Teng creates stories within the story of this album, crafting lyrics that are gorgeous and open to interpretations that are clearly shots in the dark without the key of her prior, private experience. Playing “The Hymn Of Acxiom” feels like an intrusion into a solitary prayer, stripped down from the electronic experimentation and African-inspired percussion that is so rhythmic and hypnotic on other tracks. In writing her own story down like this, she allows listeners the pleasure of viewing even if they don’t fully understand the movements she’s making inside her little room.

Laura Burroughs (@TeachBurroughs)
Jestful Musical Erudite

I do most of my OYR listening while I’m in the kitchen. I have speakers in there and it’s separate from the rest of the house, so I don’t have to worry about moderating the volume while I’m listening. It’s also the one place in the house I’m likely to be left alone long enough to actually get to listen to anything (which is why I have zero problems washing the dishes and cooking; with four kids, this is some of the only alone time I get). This week, I was hanging out in the kitchen long after I’d finished cleaning up just so I could eek out a sliver more time by myself. I’d had Vienna Teng’s Aims playing while I did everything I needed to do, and it had just started playing for the second time when my 9 year old daughter came in. “I’m just gonna get…” she started, already opening the fridge. “Who is this?!” she demanded, and I told her. “I like this! Her voice is beautiful!” I agreed, and she turned around and left to look up some songs for herself on YouTube, whatever she’d been meaning to grab from the fridge forgotten. That kind of interruption is totally fine by me.

SJ Lebowski
50 Foot Pop Queenie

Vienna Teng has certainly mastered the art of making feel good music (even the sad songs, like “Goodnight New York,” feel good), but what really impressed me about this record is the repertoire of sounds and techniques employed to do so. She certainly has a consistent sound throughout the album, but that’s underselling it a bit. Like describing lobster mac-n-cheese as just mac-n-cheese. For instance, it would be like saying “Level Up” starts off the album with a fierce energy, but failing to note the unexpected intensity of the string arrangement that brings the track to its crescendo. It would be like saying that “In The 99” is probably the catchiest record on the album, but leaving out the fact that the obviously Timbaland influenced production (complete with a beat-box that drives the track) could easily be a Nelly Furtado record that you hear on the radio a thousand times a week. And who can’t resist the absolutely beautiful harmonies on “Flyweight Love?” Couple that with the upbeat charm of “Copenhagen (Let Me Go),” and we’re floating on a cloud of marshmallows on our way to a chocolate waterfall. Forgive me, I’m hungry. The point is, Aims is a perfect marriage of undeniable talent, well thought out production, and consistent execution. What makes it so confusing is that Teng makes it sound so damn easy.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Teng’s music goes beyond inspiring, with messages & melodies that find new life in each & every listener.

I’ve never been to New York, and I’ve never been to Los Angeles. I have, however, heard many songs about them. And because I’ve heard Aims, “Goodnight New York” is added to that list. It’s a sober reflection of the city as relationship, some quiet musings set to lovely, porcelain music. In this way, it reminds me of LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” Both of the narrators treat NY as a place that is simultaneously loveable and hateable. It’s a place that greets you and throws you away. To that point: “I walk away to remember who I am”. Both Cynthia Shih and James Murphy talk of embracing an inevitable frustration with living there or just having it in your life: “May you be always breathtaking / Cold winter, sink your teeth in me / June sun, beat me blind” and “New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down […] But you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown”. There’s a level of acceptance in both tracks that’s generally reserved for friends and/or family. And I suppose when a city is a part of you deeply enough—embedded in your DNA, perhaps — then it makes sense to have such strong feelings. I’ve called Milwaukee home for most of my life and I do love this city, probably as a direct result of that. I don’t know if I love it as much, or feel as strongly about it in either direction, as Shih and Murphy, but songs like these make me want to.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

You know when you instantly hear something that resonates with your soul? The second I pressed play on this album, I felt that connection. This has been an absolutely crazy busy summer, full of music, adventures, ups and downs. I mean, I guess that’s just life, but the first song “Level Up” has that hopeful sound to it, arriving at a time where I feel like my life needs to go down one path or another. It’s definitely about time for me to level up. I recently went to a couple music festivals, and I honestly cannot describe the feeling that live music gives me. I mean, many songs have the potential to move me or affect my mood, but being surrounded by music all the time, and having perfect weather it just gives me such a high, and such a sense of hope, and this album gives me that same sense of hope. I may not know where I’m going yet, but I am hopeful that I am leading myself in the right direction, and it helps when there is music like this to play along the way.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

Cheers to our dear editor, Doug Nunnally, for choosing an album that follows Phife Dawg’s Ventilation: Da LP so poetically. There’s a thread that connects Ventilation and Aims, and it begins with J Dilla (as so many musical threads do). His production came to mind almost immediately when I first listened to this week’s opening track, “Level Up,” because of the stark contrast in technique. “Level Up” boasts a bold, driving beat, with kick drum thumps on each quarter note during certain passages — musical rocket fuel, steady as can be. You might call it the contemporary sound of self-actualization. You could also call it the antithesis of Dilla’s approach, which went off the quantized grid to build a slight wobble into the beat making process. A perfectly imperfect marriage of man and machine. But that’s where the contrast turns into a comparison, because Aims offers its own rewarding conversation with technology. Standout a cappella track “The Hymn Of Acxiom” marries the most human instrument of all with harmonization tech for a sound that manages to amplify both ends of that continuum. (Quick reminder that my blurb for Issue #129 dove headfirst into that specific balancing act.) Then there’s the “Copenhagen (Let Me Go)” beat, in which claps and stomps are electronically woven into a rich rhythmic tapestry that exists somewhere between the “Cups” song from Pitch Perfect (also see Issue #95) and the production on Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash In A Digital Urn — another excellent example of an artist in conversation with the advancing music-making technology we have at our disposal. The lyrics in “Copenhagen (Let Me Go)” join that discussion, with lines about being “locked in near-sight on the latest device,” though a more hopeful passage claims “I know we could restart / We can begin again.” I’m not always as hopeful about the fate of the digital age, but within the realm of music and tech, my glass is always half full. And albums like Aims are fuel for that sense of optimism. Rocket fuel, even.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Next Week’s Selection:
Focus by Cynic
Chosen By Steve Lampiris

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Langen Goldstien, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, Jeremy Shatan, Joel Worford, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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