Simple ballads of unforced emotion and true romance
Regina Spektor has come a mighty long way from the grotty East Village bars of the anti-folk scene at which she first started plying her hiccupping, jazz-garnished piano pop trade in at the start of the millennium. Yet even though her sixth album, ‘What We Saw From The Cheap Seats’, was recorded in the glossier surrounds of Los Angeles, on the cover she’s sporting a grandiose military-esque hat atop her ringlets, just like on her first major label record, 2004’s ‘Soviet Kitsch’. In another nod to her past she’s rehashed ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’ for this album, from 2002’s self-released ‘Songs’.
She’s done this before of course, when ‘Samson’ was swiped from the same record to go on 2006’s ‘Begin To Hope’. But why? “These songs come back because they’ve been on a really sparse record,” Spektor explained to NME last month. “I feel like I need to produce them properly, and I can’t rest until that’s done.” It’s true that the new version of ‘Don’t Leave Me…’ is a more polished, brass-boasting beast than the original, but it’s not the most sensational song here, despite being picked as the record’s second single.
As usual, it’s Spektor’s unforced way with a ballad – the sort that will have sensitive young women sobbing into their iPods on the last bus home – that cuts to the emotional quick. The elegant ‘Firewood’ is deceptively simple, managing to skip the schmaltz even when Spektor morphs into a wise auntie, brandishing a tissue and cup of sugary tea, promising: “[i]Everyone knows you’re going to love/Though there’s still no cure for crying[/i]”. As remarkable is ‘How’, which is one bottle of Cristal away from being a ’90s R&B belter. Close your eyes and you can imagine Mariah crooning it in a multi-million dollar music video involving candelabras and corsetry while pointing to the sky. In Spektor’s hands it’s not a flashy exercise in the high art of cringe, but a welcoming salvo of true romance.
If there’s a slither of Spektor’s stylings we balk at, it’s her helping hand in propagating the unrelenting Zooey Deschanel brand of Urban Outfitters kookiness, with its cupcakes, floral hair garlands and expensive frocks masquerading as thrift store finds, and it’s hard not to wince when she slips into ‘adorkable’ mode, as on ‘Oh Marcello’. A bipolar serenade, it sees snatches of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ pitted against vocal acrobatics and queasiness-inducing time signature shifts. At times such eccentricity can be electrifying, as with ‘All The Rowboats’, which is like a Tim Burton-directed, modern gothic take on The Phantom Of The Opera soundtrack, and with ‘Open’, during which she emits a throaty death rattle worthy of The Exorcist. It might be coming from the cheap seats, but for the most part, this is classy stuff.