It was easy to heap accolades on Vienna Teng's debut recording, Waking Hour, and its impeccable set of songs that overflowed with intelligence and sensitivity. Coming out at a time when plucky, piano-banging youngsters like Vanessa Carlton were upstaging their more reflective predecessors like Sarah McLachlan, Teng's songs kicked up a little wind for all sensitive singer/songwriters. But after the dust of praise finally settled, Waking Hour appeared slightly fragile in retrospect, with songs that were a bit too precious and self-conscious. This may have proven to be a blessing in disguise, as her follow-up disc, Warm Strangers, displays the confidence of a burgeoning artist who had gotten her feet wet and has now plunged headlong into a pool of sparkling songs. Breaking the surface with the uneasy strains of "Feather Moon," Teng takes command with a quiet intensity that immediately bests anything from her debut, as her haunting voice beckons to "breathe in, breathe out," bringing to mind Kate Bush's equally spooky "Breathing." Unlike her debut's quiet meditations that tended to bleed into each other, Teng gets positively upbeat on several tracks. Soothing sea winds are practically felt in the jubilant "Harbor," while the lilting "Shasta (Carrie's Song)" is quite possibly the most musically cheerful song ever written about a trip to an abortion clinic. These diversions help bring more definition to each song, allowing plaintive ballads like "Shine" and "Homecoming (Walter's Song)" to be more memorable and affective than if they were sequenced together. Although Teng's piano still drives most of the songs, the accompanying arrangements are inventive yet unobtrusive. Simple enhancements like the solo trumpet in "Mission Street," or the strummed piano strings in the disc's majestic centerpiece, "My Medea," keep the songs moving forward without distracting from Teng's vocal and instrumental proficiency. The disc starts to meander in the second half, but there are enough interesting moments to keep it from wandering too far off-track, such as the ghostly, a cappella "Passage," in which Teng embodies the spirit of a car accident victim who observes the grieving loved ones she left behind. Also noteworthy is a hidden bonus track whose lullaby-like melody, sung in Chinese, is a mesmerizing blend of Western pop music and Eastern language. With Warm Strangers, Vienna Teng has taken a confident step forward to create a set of songs that are sharper, deeper, and even more enchanting than her debut, proving that her talent and music are worthy of the accolades that continue to stack up around her.
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AllMusic Review by Aaron Latham