Whether or not you’ll like Regina Spektor’s new record pretty much depends entirely on whether or not you appreciate Regina Spektor. I know, I know. With probing analysis like that, how do I not have a Pulitzer yet?
It’s a valid observation, though. Since breaking through in the mid-2000s (the indie kids caught on with 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, while VH1 hopped the train for 2006’s Begin to Hope), Ms. Spektor has proven an acquired taste of sorts; her moody, expressive, piano-based songs seem like a no-brainer to any music fan with a stack of Tori Amos records on the shelf, but Spektor’s signature vocal tics are a source of contention for detractors. She’s got a way of allowing her coy, girlish lower register to leapfrog from relative normalcy to full-bore yelps and gasps, climbing up and rappelling down the scales with abandon. It’s all very expressive, but it’s easy to see how it’s dizzying for a non-fan, and potentially distracting from some solid pop tunes.
Regina’s 2009 record Far reigned in these sensibilities to some degree, and it resulted in, technically, her worst album; for an artist that maintained her unique artistic identity even through her commercial breakthrough, it was a bit too stilted and conventional for a fanbase that had already flipped over Regina’s myriad idiosyncrasies. Rejoice, then, fans who relish hearing Regina’s stunning voice explore the full range of its potential: her new one, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, finds Regina back in Begin to Hope mode, positioned squarely between the singer’s raw, enthralling early albums and the crisp, layered pop production of her later years.
Take the loping “Oh Marcello”, delivered in a silly mock-Italian accent; Regina nicks the chorus of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” for the hook, and delivers it with disarming honesty, a few seconds of beauty before returning to the kooky theatrics, traversing the scales during the prolonged vowel sounds, reminiscent of the coda to Soviet Kitsch classic “Us”. Or take “Small Town Moon”, a number which suggests Regina’s been taking her Tori Amos pills; she intersperses lilting, almost unbearably pretty verses with stomping Dresden Dolls piano-rock, reminiscent of the way Tori once broke up her most beautiful melody, “Pretty Good Year”, with atonal breakdowns before returning to ethereal, honest beauty. Regina consistently keeps us on our collective toes, breaking up her crisp, dynamic voice with prolonged flights of fancy; she yelps, she gasps dramatically, she even impersonates a marching band.
And yet – and herein lies the secret to Ms. Spektor’s artistic success – she has moments of disarming honesty and vulnerability. Her most prolific mainstream hit to date, 2006’s “Fidelity”, hinted at this, despite the sprightly production and catchy chorus, with all its talk of voices in her mind and broken hearts; album buyers, however, will note that a few tracks later on Begin to Hope, Regina delivers a certified three-hanky weeper in the mournful “Samson”. Cheap Seats finds Regina resigned to getting older – one of the most poignant sources of heartbreak in all popular music – on “Firewood”, and album centerpiece (and certified showstopper) “How” sorts through the wreckage of a crash-and-burn relationship with the bruised beauty and slow-burn devotion of “Unchained Melody”.
And that’s the rub. Regina can – and often does – make fun music; witness the sprightly Parisian beachside romp “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”, a cut, like “Sampson”, resurrected from an early independent record, and granted an upgrade. And yet, Regina – and the stunning instrument that is her voice – can also break your heart. She does this often, too, and thus satisfies (for those acclimated to her idiosyncrasies) all sides of the discerning pop listener. She does all this because she’s a terrific artist, and What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is one of her best full-lengths to date. Bravo, Regina, once again – never leave your goofy accents and wacky pronunciations on the cutting room floor, because it keeps things interesting.