The knock against classically trained pianist and erstwhile software engineer Vienna Teng has always been that her music, while often gorgeous and insightful, can be a bit too delicate or too precious for its own good. Teng’s fourth album, Inland Territory, resoundingly answers these criticisms with an adventurous sonic palette and songs that draw inspiration from both personal and topical sources, and it stands as her most satisfying and mature album to date.
Even on the album’s more subdued moments, Teng and co-producer Alex Wong add enough texture to keep things interesting: The vinyl record pops added to opener “The Last Snowfall” suggest a crackling fire that complements the song’s slow-burning meditation on the pathetic fallacy, while the cascading arpeggios that run throughout “Antebellum” give the song a real sense of momentum as its narrative makes an effective and surprisingly novel parallel between a military campaign and a failed relationship. When Teng branches out from her usual repertoire of piano and tastefully arranged strings, bringing in an electric guitar on the terrific, uptempo single “White Light” or singing nearly a capella over the syncopated handclaps of the standout “Grandmother Song,” the results are never less than captivating. While many of the production choices, especially the pots-and-pans percussion on “Radio,” are surprises coming from Teng, they never pull focus from her thoughtful songwriting and her exquisite, soulful soprano.
What impresses most about Inland and what makes it a refinement of the promise Teng showed on albums like 2006’s Dreaming Through the Noise is that she manages to eschew conventional pop-song structures without succumbing to the fussy, overworked arrangements that bog down other classically-minded artists. Songs like “St. Stephen’s Cross” and “Stray Italian Greyhound” build deliberately, while vignettes like “Kansas” and “No Gringo” simply wouldn’t be well suited to a typical verse-chorus-verse structure. But when Teng does go for a memorable hook, as on “White Light” and “Radio,” she hits her mark just as well. It’s this balance between ambition and accomplishment that makes Inland so compelling.