At Least We’ll Get Hurt Trying

Regina Spektor’s reputation — around these parts, anyway — is that of a Tori Amos who avoided, by dint of growing up in Reagan-era Soviet Russia, a youthful overdose on self-impressed whimsy.  The comparison’s not entirely fair; aside from being attractive quasi-redheads with an affection for piano and theatricality, the two don’t really have much in common.  Amos is really just a graduate from the Sensitive Ladies’ Singer-Songwriter Academy, albeit one who didn’t go to the campfire strum-alongs and wouldn’t let anyone bum one of her cigarettes after Being Plaintive 101.  Spektor, for all her tendencies in that direction, is really more of a cabaret performer, a cleaner, less degenerate Tom Waits drunk on champagne instead of whisky but no less attracted to oddballs and lowlifes.  She’s always had that hard edge — it’s apparent on “Your Honour”, her very first charting single — and her expressiveness has, especially in recent memory, strayed towards the creepy side of quirky; she’s become arty, leaving Amos to hold down artsy.  (To put it another way, Amos has become more like Neil Gaiman — whose friendship with her is apparently enough to rate an entire section on Wikipedia — while Spektor has become more like Grant Morrison.)

Spektor’s new album, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, was released on Sire late last month, and it’s as good an indicator as any as where she’s coming from, and the highly promising direction she’s headed.  If there’s one thing that truly stands out on the record as a great leap forward, it’s the amazing control she’s developing over her already versatile vocals.  Some critics are unimpressed with this, citing as evidence of what they perceive as over-theatricality; but to my ears, she’s just developing new and interesting ways of using her breath and her phrasing that suggest that she’s only going to become a better singer as she gets older.  This is evident from the album opener, “Small Town Moon”; its tempo-shifting blend of piano and beatbox is sonically engaging enough, but the real star is her vocal performance, which begins suggesting a jazz singer with experience far beyond Spektor’s 32 year and ends with some fine pop inflection.

Cheap Seats is also marked by Spektor’s usual all-over-the-map music invention; there’s nothing bad to say about someone who is willing to try absolutely anything, especially when the results are this good.  The organ/beatbox/cod-Italian of “Oh Marcello” is pure goof, but a sense of humor is not a bad thing speaking of Tori Amos, and at least Spektor knows what she’s doing and crams the whole ridiculous proceeding full of charm.  Similarly, there isn’t much to the Caribbeanized love song “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”, but she sells the hell out of the thing, and it’s hooky enough to become a huge hit even if she doesn’t do a lot with it.  And that’s just the songs that don’t work perfectly; most of the rest of the album is executed almost flawlessly.  “Firewood” is a flat-out masterpiece (and the album’s most Waitsian offering; I’d love to hear him take a swing at it). It’s followed by “Patron Saint”, which is downright anthemic before joyfully undercutting itself with a wry sing-along ending; “How” has a somewhat predictable pop-soul structure, but Spektor completely sells it with her vocal performance; and “All the Rowboats” is every bit as great as it needs to be to justify its status as the album’s first single.  “Open” is a disciplined and moving piece that would have been spoiled by too much excess, but stays as focused as it needs to be to show off Spektor’s ingenuity as a vocalist.

Another virtue of What We Saw from the Cheap Seats is that it’s efficient as hell.  In the post-download era, record companies have gotten the idea of cramming an album full of excess content in order to tempt buyers with their “money’s worth”.  Unfortunately, this usually translates to tracks that are pure filler, or worse yet, songs that ought to be a lean three minutes clocking in at a bloated six just to make people think they paid for something.  Cheap Seats, by contrast, is a real barracuda, thin and quick and sharp; there’s not a song on it over five minutes long, and nary a wasted moment.  It doesn’t feel like it’s a rush job that Spektor wanted to get out of the way quickly; it just pulls off that increasingly rare trick of saying what it has to say and being done with it.  That’s an absolute virtue in the era of digital bloat.

The biggest flaw of Cheap Seats is one that it’s hard to hold against it, since Spektor has so frequently admitted that it’s something she has a problem with, but it’s there and can’t be denied:  the thing doesn’t cohere one bit.  She’s copped in interviews to lacking the focus to writing songs that have the singular qualities of the greatest pop, and this carries over, as a songwriter, into making an album that sounds unified.  The songs don’t have any real order; they just spill over, one into another and another to the next.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with songs like the off-kilter, appealingly nasty “Ballad of a Politician”, the sweetly dorky jaunt of “The Party”, or the simple, brief album-ender “Jessica”; they’re fine pieces of work.  They just don’t sound like they belong where they are on the record, or, indeed, like much thought went into putting the record together at all.  This isn’t a huge problem, particularly in the world of the shuffle, and it’s not entirely unexpected from a woman who says that she writes hundreds of songs and isn’t ever particularly sure whether they’re worth recording.  It does, however, make the album sound like more of a mess than it actually is, especially when listened to at a sitting.  Spektor has always shared co-production credits with one or more other people; her next album might be a good time for her to hand over the reins to a single producer who can wield the kind of discipline that can align her wandering into a direct line to greatness.  It’s this inability to pull it all together that’s really the only thing hobbling her at the moment, and keeping her confined to the ranks of the good.

In the meantime, though, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, her best album since Begin to Hope and in competition with that album’s predecessor Soviet Kitch as her finest collection of songs, will do; it’s a diffuse and unconcentrated spray, but it still sparkles, and much of it remains in the air far longer than you’d expect.

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