The tragedy of American Idol's karaoke sweepstakes is amplified in the person of Vienna Teng, whose talents include not only a warm, smoky voice, but piano, songwriting, and composing chops that beg for the attention squandered on Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken.
A Stanford grad and onetime software engineer with Cisco Systems, Teng quit her job two years ago to tour in support of her full-length debut, Waking Hour. Her bright, airy, melodic pop recalls Paula Cole and Tori Amos, and is arrayed in lush, dramatic arrangements of horns, violins, and cellos. The 27-year-old Asian-American pianist, who began playing at the age of five, displays increasing lyrical sophistication on her latest album, Warm Strangers. While the first half is a little heavy on inspirational, hang-in-there-kitty pop ballads, she shows greater facility with the wistful, Chapin-style bird's-eye folk-pop on the second half. Teng even takes intriguingly offbeat turns on the a cappella "Passage," which richly imagines the fading memory of an accident victim, and the album-closing "The Atheist Christmas Carol," venerating "the season of bowing our heads in the wind / And knowing we are not alone in fear / Not alone in the dark."