- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

Vienna Teng

Warm Strangers

Virt Records

Stanford-educated and a piano phenom since age 5 — it’s easy to resent San Francisco’s Vienna Teng. On her sophomore album for national consumption, “Warm Strangers,” Miss Teng is as smooth and sophisticated, and as expensive, as a cosmopolitan cocktail.

She’s highly professional and, for that reason, lacks warmth and approachability. You want to surrender to her beatific soprano but are chilled by all the cellos and violas and the insular vibe of the chamber.

Written in the mold of Tori Amos and eyeballing but not quite connecting with Sarah McLachlan’s sweet accessibility, “Strangers” is earnest piano pop for citified folks who think lots of abstract thoughts about nature — then “weekend” in the country and hold their noses at the first smell of manure. (They’ll be satisfied to know a portion of the proceeds here go to the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

“Strangers” is crafty mood music for stargazers and sunset watchers, replete as it is with references to horizons, moons, skies and deserts. Best-suited for background noise, its lyrics wither at the gentlest distance of irony.

The opening swatches of concert piano on “Feather Moon” are ripe for a movie soundtrack, but the song’s “breathe in, breathe out” refrain reads like handprint-in-the-clay poetry.

Miss Teng sympathetically offers herself as a refuge for a lover or friend on the nearly beguiling ballad “Harbor,” but what metaphor would this Bay Area-rooted writer have come up with had she been born landlocked?

You can hear stemware clinking and back-alley trumpets blaring at the beginning of “Mission Street,” a pleasant, Cat Steven-ish acoustic ditty. However, when Miss Teng sings “My hands are cold tonight / but the sky is bright with stars,” it’s almost enough to send you scrambling for Jewel’s “A Night Without Armor” book.

On the half-funky “Hope on Fire,” Miss Teng skids from urbane to urban, and the resultant hybrid isn’t pretty. Another foray into the up tempo, “Shasta (Carrie’s Song),” an insouciant look at a friend’s trip to the abortion clinic, isn’t quite as jarring.

Miss Teng finishes “Warm Strangers” with a trio of tracks bolder than what preceded them: the ghostly a cappella “Passage”; “The Atheist’s Christmas Carol,”a languorous rumination on death and love ; and, finally, an untitled hidden ballad sung in Chinese.

Bet Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos can’t do that.

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