Once in a while (what may seem like a great while), we get an opportunity to bask in the glow of a great song. The story usually starts off, “This song was written in the heat of an inspired moment…” but I like to think that incredible lyrics and musicality don’t come about by a random thought… or a producer’s formulaic hand, for that matter; someone took the time to sit down and commit to a truly musical idea (though, there are some extremely talented producers out there that have a knack for the “right sound” and should be commended). The songs I speak of usually have some interesting meter (anything other than simple duple gives me pause), dissonance (zomg did you hear that added ninth?), or lyrics that entice a listener through the whole track. These “pieces of music” show themselves in groups like the Dave Matthews Band, Radiohead, Muse, and whatever Bela Fleck is playing in at the time.
An artist to be added to this list of heroes is Vienna Teng. First of all, she’s a trained pianist. Knowing your way around an instrument (most practically, a piano) opens up so many musical options that you are already immediately in the top 10%. I’d like to think Vienna Teng has more input as to the final product than the average bear. Second, she’s got a voice to match. Singing out of tune can be easily remedied these days, however, losing respect (especially at a live show) cannot.
One of Vienna Teng’s songs that stands out with musical gumption is “Pontchartrain” off her album Dreaming Through the Noise. Beginning with the innocuous gentle hammering of a ‘C Major’ chord, the melody comes in traveling on an altered octatonic scale (a little ‘A Flat’ never hurt anybody). Now, the downright notion of this shows balls. It’s not everyday you can get away with something like that – unless, of course, you have the right sound (and this is definitely it). At this point, I’d like to imagine her saying, “Well, I’ve taken care of a striking melodic gesture; why not go for a harmonic one?” As a result, ‘C Major’ goes to ‘F Sharp Major’ and the melody floats gently around an ‘F Sharp Lydian’ scale before settling back on ‘C Major’. We can expect to see this kind of chordal shift in a Wagner music drama – not so much in pop music. However, the important thing is that it works. The slow tempo and haunting lyrics complement not only the melodic and harmonic aspects, but the shimmering tremoli and broadly bowed glissandi in the strings, as well.
There’s a lot more to gloat over in this song, but most of it should be discovered upon a listening, not a reading. We can hope this kind of musical enterprise will continue to be encouraged in the pop music world so that the status quo sees a legitimate challenge. Needless to say, “Pontchartrain” should be in everyone’s iTunes. I only wish I had discovered it earlier.