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Teng's Flamboyant Contraption Takes Off

Vienna Teng makes music that gets more compelling as it goes along.
Vienna Teng makes music that gets more compelling as it goes along.

In the beginning, "I Don't Feel So Well" sounds like an intermediate theory student's two-part counterpoint study. Against clustered upper-register piano chords, the prim voice of Vienna Teng threads a line that might have been borrowed from a baroque etude.

It's pleasant, but hardly exceptional: As with many of this pianist and chamber-pop composer's songs, it only becomes compelling as it goes along. Step by careful step, Teng builds the song outward, until what began in an 18th-century manor in old Europe becomes a gaudy bit of dance entertainment in a boisterous Buenos Aires bar. Each eight or so measures, she adds a different tone or just slightly gooses the rhythm: The second verse gets steadying acoustic bass, while the bridge adds a solo viola and then a spry, almost celebratory string quartet. Later, as the strings play increasingly busy lines, an accordion appears — and that cajoles Teng to attack the piano with the fierce chordal jabs associated with tango.

This big, flamboyant contraption would be largely a novelty were it not for Teng's vocals. Whispering sweetly and singing odd intervallic leaps with exacting precision, she lingers over lines others smother, and playfully delivers the lyric in a way that perfectly mirrors the textures developing in the arrangement at that moment. The words themselves are repetitious — she's not feeling well, she thought you should know — but like lots of great music written for theater, they acquire a deep, distinct resonance after Teng sends them halfway around the world.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.