In Brief: Regina Spektor is like that scatterbrained childhood friend with hidden intellectual depths who you still love dearly with despite how bafflingly bizarre she can sometimes be.
With a good decade’s worth of albums under her belt, Regina Spektor is one of those artists who makes me feel like I’m really, really late to the party. Fortunately it’s her party, and she’ll gleefully throw handfuls of confetti at me on my way through the door even though it’s well past sunrise the next morning. She’d probably excitedly blurt out something like, “Who wants chocolate chip pancakes?” immediately after. She just strikes me as having that sort of playful personality. There’s a certain “q” word that gets used to describe lovably offbeat singers and actresses and so forth of her ilk – it’s been pinned on everyone this side of Zooey Deschanel, and I’ve decided I’m going to challenge myself to not use the word in this review. It’s become almost meaningless nowadays. We’re all unique individuals with strange ways of looking at the world. Some of us are just better at articulating it than others, and Ms. Spektor’s probably in one of the highest percentiles on that scale.
So I’ve been listening to her most recent album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, quite a bit over the last few months. It’s one of those all-over-the-place albums, ostensibly a piano-based singer/songwriter effort, but frequently dabbling its colorful painted toenails in stranger waters. I’m often compelled to refer to Regina as “the Russian Björk” – she may not be obsessed with building her own instruments or creating miniscule electronic soundscapes, but there’s a certain kinship between the two due to Regina’s love of pulling phonetics apart like taffy, and substituting her own playful mouth sounds where traditional words fail and conventional instruments might have sounded too normal. You would think from such a description that her songs might all be about fluffy fairytale worlds coated in pixie dust or something, but at times her songs can be quite down-to-earth, and even compellingly heartbreaking. She can put a smile on your face with a perky turn of phrase just as easily as she can startle the living daylights out of you. Nothing on the level of truly disturbed psychopathy, but it’s enough of a gamut of emotions to keep me guessing. At times, her unusual metaphors and unexpected points-of-view remind me of my all-time-favorite songstress, Vienna Teng. Just a lot more intentionally goofy.
If there’s a drawback to Cheap Seats, it’s that much of it feels like a gaudy side show to a main event that we only catch small glimpses of. It’s a weirdly short album – 37 minutes long, three tracks under three minutes and one of them under two – with its songs all arranged haphazardly, seemingly without much though put into how one flows into the next. Fans who had followed Regina’s work faithfully during the gap between this and her previous album, Far, must have been slightly disappointed to have pretty much all of this album’s surprises spoiled before the fact – a few of these songs have appeared in her live shows or even in early recorded demos as far back as ten years ago, and the only one that was truly “new” upon the album’s release date was its barely-there afterthought of a closing track. The album makes a great sampler of the various facets of Spektor’s personality, but the overall purpose of the record seems to be more about showcasing talent and wit (which, mind you, isn’t a bad thing) rather than making any sort of grand, unified statement. If you’re the type of listener who feels constantly compelled to say, “Yes, but what is the point of all of these absurd vocal affectations and cutesy instrumental contributions and that creepy beatboxing that she does?”, then you’re probably going to miss out on the party entirely. The album title tells you all you need to know. You’re not in for the greatest show on Earth or anything, but it’s still a fun way to spend part of an afternoon.
1. Small Town Moon
You sort of get two personalities in one with this album opener – the cutesy, small-scale, piano balladeer Regina, and the noisy, startling, indie rocker Regina. The latter is sandwiched in the former, as the song opens and closes with her closing her eyes and remembering her hometown, asking the question that a number of artists must ask themselves when their tours start to take them farther and farther afield: “How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?” The stress of this question must be what leads to the mini-freakout in the center of the song, when drums begin to stomp and an electric guitar contributes a few angry licks and the song settles into a cool, albeit disappointingly brief, rhythmic breakdown. I could be imagining it, but she seems to be vaguely referencing Buffalo Springfield with her playful refrain: “Stop, stop, what’s the hurry?/Come on, baby, don’t you worry, worry/Everybody not so nice, nice/Everybody not so nice, nice.” Just as soon as you’re getting into the groove, it dissipates and everything’s back to the miniscule scale on which it started, after which she practically whispers: “Oh babybabybabybabybabybabybabybabybabybabybabybabybaby, it’s all about the moon.” Yes, there are over ten instances of “baby” in that lyric, and they all occur within a single breath. If any of these odd little one-off events are too distracting to allow you to focus on a song, then consider this tune your litmus test. Regina’s music may not be for you. I like enough here that I find it to be an inviting intro into a collection of mostly adventurous songs.
2. Oh Marcello
One of the most oddball songs on the album hits you right out of nowhere – the piano feels damp and distant, and has a certain sort of static crackle to it like it’s the soundtrack to an old talkie, and Regina’s talking hurriedly in an exaggerated Italian accent, playing the role of a mother-to-be who is convinced that her baby will grow up to be the same sort of mobster that it’s implied her father is. The chorus slows down the rhythm slightly in order to quote an old Nina Simone song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, though it’s less of an abrupt tempo change and more like the song’s tempo teeter-totters throughout the whole thing and can’t quite seem to make up its mind. That actually helps the song to feel like it’s being cranked out on some old movie reel by the hand of a real person who can’t maintain a constant speed the way a machine can. Still, it’s pretty freaking weird and the song is a hot mess because of it. Add some of Regina’s percussive mouth sounds on top of it, and you get a song that I find mildly amusing, but that also might be trying to do a bit too much in the span of less than three minutes.
3. Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)
The album’s first sure-fire home run is actually a remake of one of Regina’s oldest songs. It’s become one of her most dressed-up, glossy pop numbers in the transformation, but at the same time, this playful ode to life in New York City, with its French-language refrain, is still true to its bouncy origins on her 2002 album Songs, which felt like a demo anyway – Regina didn’t make the best vocal choices in terms of which notes to hit in that version, and she’s pretty clearly worked out the kinks here. If you have an aversion to all things cutesy, then this one’ll probably make you want to tear your hair out, as she might as well be a little girl skipping down the street and describing the slice-of-life activities of each neighborhood’s denizens. Shoot, she wouldn’t even have to stretch this one too far to make an appearance on Sesame Street with it. But with its peppy programming, joyful horn section, and sunny keyboard sounds, it’s the perfect cure for the grey, rainy/snowy days that are ailing you this winter. (Even though Regina seems to love the snow and rain, judging from the lyrics. Or at least she likes Paris in the rain. Not sure how we got there when the song is about NYC, but whatever.)
The first true ballad on the album is one of its most straightforward and hopeful songs – there’s still plenty of room for Regina’s usual wit and charm in the lyrics, but the arrangement is mostly pared down to her voice and piano. Here she sings empathetically to someone who is suffering, urging them to believe that “the piano is not firewood yet”, which is a metaphor later spelled out more plainly: “You’re not dying”. Over one of her most winning melodies, she pledges companionship to her suffering friend without ever beating around the bush regarding the pain that this person has to endure – “It’s going to hurt, but it won’t kill you” is how I’d sum up the entire point of this one. What I really love about this one is that it could have easily ended after is final verse and it would already be a standout track, but Regina gives it a little extra “push” by speeding up the tempo into a sort of magical waltz right at the end. It’s as if the piano itself came to life, like a lost character from Beauty and the Beast or something.
5. Patron Saint
On an album as dependent on throwing in everything but the kitchen sink as this one is, there’s always bound to be a song or two that gets lost in the shuffle due to sounding comparatively less distinctive. This mid-tempo tune, though it tries its best with its punchy mid-tempo rhythm and its slightly troubled melody, appears to be one of those songs. I just plain kept forgetting it was there – it’s probably needed to keep the two ballads surrounding it from being a total momentum-killer in the middle of the album, but very little about this one sticks out to me. The protagonist of the song is a jaded girl who seems determined to break her own heart before anyone can, and the lyrics keep culminating in the phrase “knowing that true love exists”, as if to say that it hurts more to know such a thing is possible and you can’t have it, than it is to believe that there is no such thing. Towards the end, for no apparent reason, she throws in these “doo doo doo”s that I could swear were lifted from the melody to War‘s “Low Rider”. There’s a memorable song with an interesting story just waiting to break out here – Regina’s certainly trying for a dramatic delivery at times. But there’s something intangible missing from it that keeps me from connecting all the dots.
Now if you’re turned off by Regina’s usual cutesiness, this might be one song where you can respect her ability to put that aside and tell us how she’s feeling, unfiltered, without needing to hide behind the wit. That’s not to say that this sad little torch song lacks cleverness or intelligence – it just comes with a certain transparency that makes it more directly relateable than her “weird” songs tend to be. She’s reeling from a breakup here, but it’s not the kind where she walks away from the relationship hating the guy’s guts. Quite the opposite, in fact – she’s stuck on the seeming impossibility of forgetting the guy when she knows that her favorite memories of him are going to replay themselves over and over in her mind. “You are a guest here now”, is how she puts it, and there’s so much to unpack in just that one line, because in it you can hear her heart wishing he could still be a resident, while her mind seems to wish it could just banish him altogether. I know that I compare piano-playing female artists to Norah Jones a lot, and it’s not something I’d normally do with Regina’s music. But you could have slipped this song into Norah’s latest album (which made commendable strides toward indie pop even if I was still a bit bored with it in the end), and I’d be none the wiser. Though Norah probably wouldn’t stretch out the “ooh”s and “aah”s with quite the same level of longing that Regina pours into them here. That’s where the playfulness peeks through even if the song as a whole is still wrapped up in a melancholy haze.
7. All the Rowboats
Things get deliciously dark for several tracks here, starting with the most up-tempo and addictive track on the album (and understandably its lead single). You’ll be tempted at first to wonder if Regina’s sold out to the whims of modern pop music as the distorted electronic sounds at the beginning cue up the song’s main piano melody. But aside from some drum programming and slight keyboard flourishes, the wall of sound comes mostly from Regina’s menacing piano chords. Once again, she’s vocalizing percussion sounds here – and the effect will truly take you by surprise the first time you hear it, since her harsh approximaton of a breakbeat rings out like machine gun fire at a few points. It adds to the claustrophobic mood of this, the rare pop song that dares to feel compassion for inanimate objects – specifically, artwork and artifacts held hostage in museums. She imagines the glass cases as small tombs, and fancies the painted scenes of placid lakes as being still frames from scenes in which the people rowing boats across them are trying to escape from something. It’s pure whimsical imagination – the polar opposite of “How” in the sense that it’s about absolutely nothing personal, unless you want to take great liberties in unpacking her metaphors: “It’s their own fault for being timeless/There’s a price you pay and a consequence.” Hmmm, okay, there could be a little of the recording artist’s angst in that bit, but it’s certainly a more creative approach than the vast majority of songs that complain about the cruel underbelly of the music biz, if indeed that’s how I’m supposed to be interpreting this.
8. Ballad of a Politician
Short but sinister, this minor-key ballad makes its point with the most ominous melody imaginable and then steps aside, only asking for about two minutes of our time as Regina points out that hey, politicians are a lot like prostitutes, aren’t they? Alright, so that might be a “No sh*t, Sherlock”-type observation for some of you, almost to the point where it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But the creepy atmosphere is what elevates the song beyond the obvious, turning the usual balance of power as the citizen demands that her would-be leader do a demeaning dance to prove his worth: “Shake it, shake it, baby/Shake your @$$ out in that street/You’re gonna make us scream someday/You’re gonna make it big.” She knows – and perhaps delights in – the notion that for all of his glad-handing and baby-kissing and pledge-making, the system’s going to chew him up and spit him out just like an aging exotic dancer. For some reason, I find it perversely amusing.
These sorts of sparse, abstract songs can be very hit or miss for me. So it’s to Regina’s credit that, despite having the sort of melody and structure that could easily wander off into wisps of fragmented thought like some of Bjork’s more tedious ballads, she instead commands my attention with nothing more than her voice and her lone instrument. The dynamics in this one are genius – the grand, sweeping fanfare of a melody that subs in for a conventional chorus, the tentative notes that sprinkle throughout the verses like drops of rain afraid to drip from the leaves of trees to the cold, muddy ground, and most of all, Regina’s ability to go from meekly observant to full-throated and proud within the same sentence. I’d be belaboring the point, not to mention making a terrible pun, if I described this one as “open-ended”, but I guess I just did, so there you have it. Other fans’ responses to this have ranged from being delighted and encouraged by it, to feeling turned off or even frightened by it. It seems harmless enough at first, as Regina declares herself to be “Potentially lovely, perpetually human, suspended and open”, but what you won’t see coming after two quiet verses of this as the desperate and downright ugly gasps for air that she inserts between nearly every word of the third verse. It completely changes the character of the song, and potentially your reaction, which at first was probably “Oh, that’s kinda pretty in a sad way” to “Oh dear God, what is that sound?” It’s like she’s unhinged her jaw and she’s gulping down all of the breathable air left in the vicinity and you’re terrified because you might either suffocate or get sucked into the resulting vacuum. And yet, instead of finding this horrific, for some reason I’m compelled by it, as if the song is like her own personal way of saying “Carpe diem”. As it ends, on small piano chords as tense and unresolved as the ones it began with, I’m left thinking that this would have been one hell of a grand finale for the album.
10. The Party
However, we’ve still got two very short tracks to go. And I guess Regina preferred to end things on a happy note (insofar as the order of these songs even matters at all, anyway). The mood here is lighter, more festive, not in a bouncy, poppy way like we heard earlier on, but starting off with her nearly purring like a kitten as she compliments a special someone, “You’re like a party/Somebody threw me/You taste like birthday/You look like New Year’s.” You have to hear how her voice lilts and lingers on the word birrrrrrrrthday to really appreciate it. As she invites all of us – friends and strangers – to come out of the woodwork and bang on our instruments and make some celebratory noise, she reminds me once again of her willingness to conjure up instruments where the real thing isn’t available, as she does her very best impression of a trumpet. I figure that this, too, would be a pretty good, affirming way to close up the album. But I’m still wrong.
So, as I mentioned earlier, this was the one truly “new” song on the album, that hadn’t been previously recorded or played live in any form. Imagine the disappointment when a long-time fan gets to the end of this album for the first time and is greeted with a minute-and-half-long afterthought, just Regina skipping along on acoustic guitar and telling her friend Jessica to wake up because it’s February and we must get older. Perhaps this would have been poignant as a reprise or continuation of some earlier thought, but it comes out of nowhere and it honestly feels like the sort of one-take, don’t-think-too-hard-about-it composition that would normally get stuck into the middle of an album as a fun little interlude, or tacked on as a bonus track or B-side. This doesn’t offer anything in the way of closure or summary that I can see. Taken on its own without the burden of closing the album, it’s pleasant enough but not all that memorable – any number of indie kids raised on stuff like the Juno soundtrack could probably crank out something like this in not much longer than the time it takes to listen to it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Small Town Moon $1
Oh Marcello $.75
Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas) $1.75
Patron Saint $.50
All the Rowboats $2
Ballad of a Politician $1.50
The Party $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.