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Best of 2013: Vienna Teng Aims High, Has One Memorable Year

12/17/2013 12:00 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2014

Vienna Teng is upfront about the ways she creates and performs music that's daring and dynamic.

The classically trained pianist and Californian-born singer-songwriter embraces technology to enhance her sound, and isn't afraid to let everyone know it.

During the course of an intimate yet exuberant 90-minute show on December 11 at the Soiled Dove Underground in Denver, Teng showed off some of her new tools of the trade.

Vienna Teng guitarEven before hitting the first note, Teng (left) credited opening act and touring member Alex Wong for inspiring her "to acquire robots of my own," which she uses to incredibly satisfying and special effect on Aims and in concert.

The strength of this thought-provoking record was readily apparent before interviewing Teng prior to the September release, and repeated plays since then confirmed the notion that it deserved a spot atop my personal Best of 2013 album list. (The complete top 10 will be revealed next week.)

Then Teng's warm performance on this chilly night as her 2013 tour wound down only reinforced such strong feelings for that selection.

On a stage covered with technological wizardry and an orchestra's worth of instruments (French horn, clarinet among them), Teng apologized for being partially obstructed while sitting at the venue's baby grand piano.

She also pointed out to the sizable and supportive crowd the extra microphone sprouting up from her keyboard. "So this is my honest vocal, and this is my dishonest vocal," Teng joked. "This is the one where I'll be gradually outsourcing things so that I won't have to do them."

With the aid of a looper pedal, her syncopated breaths provided the percussion as Teng began "The Last Snowfall," from 2009's Inland Territory. The Wong-produced record was the fourth studio album of her career but the last before she took a musical hiatus to take on another challenging adventure.

Attending graduate school at the University of Michigan's Erb Institute, a partnership between the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ross School of Business ("We were tree huggers half the time and capitalists the other half," Teng said), she eventually decided to live in Detroit.

aims-lgHer experiences in and around Motown provided imaginative ideas that developed into Aims songs such as the forceful "Level Up" and "The Hymn of Acxiom," a touchingly eerie piece that Teng sings a cappella with a futuristic chorus of her various electronic voices.

Taking Laurie Anderson's "O Superman," into the 21st century, Teng set up the song with an entertaining demonstration of her other "robot," the vocal harmonizer. It includes various settings ("Nashville backup singers," the handy "Barry White button," the "Imogen Heap button" or, with a few lines from "End of the Road," the amazing "Boyz II Men" button).

"The possibilities are endless," Teng said with a spot-on imitation of White, the late heavyweight of the disco era who took songs like "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" to their lowest depths. "So you can imagine the hours that I lost when I bought this thing."

Vienna Teng glassCovering difficult themes such as privacy issues, sustainability and Occupy Wall Street, Teng understands how some of her songs (like the live "Landsailor" duet with touring sound engineer Aaron Long, also on keyboards) might come across as grandiose or pretentious. But she, Wong, a versatile musician who can beat a drum and play keyboards at the same time, and another talented multi-instrumentalist, Nashville's Jordan Hamlin, proved they were anything but that throughout a marvelous evening that included 10 of Aims' 11 polished songs.

An acoustic guitar and sweet voice were all Teng needed to raise the goosebump-chill factor on "Oh Mama No," then all three (beginning with Teng's fingertip circling the rim of a wine glass) produced unusually beautiful sounds on "The Breaking Light."

There also were stories of strange trips (a 15-hour drive from Minneapolis with only a few hours of sleep produces a feeling "like when you've had just enough to drink that you think you're really good at pool") and comically random references and impressions (in the same sentence) to Downton Abbey's Lady Grantham and South Park's Cartman.

Vienna Teng piano cupsHamlin and Wong (at right, with Teng) utilized plastic cups (like those used in speed-stacking contests) purchased at Dollar Tree for percussion while Teng played the piano (before joining the fun) during "Copenhagen (Let Me Go)" as the show neared its upbeat conclusion with a soulful "Grandmother Song" (also from Inland Territory) and her thrilling double-cover encore.

"I'm always crossing my fingers," Teng said about using the looper again as she prepared to combine Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" with Eminem's "Lose Yourself."

"I really wanted to learn both of them but when I tried to do one of them in its entirety during a karaoke session, I nearly passed out because apparently the original artist doesn't breathe," she said. "To me, these songs eerily fit together in some strange way."

Merging Vienna Teng's adept musical skills with an inventive use of electronic gadgetry will produce a similarly desirous effect.

No wonder she's No. 1 this year.

Concert photos my Michael Bialas. See more of Vienna Teng at the Soiled Dove Underground in Denver.