Album review: Regina Spektor – ‘Far’

The surprisingly influential songwriter breaks out from ‘niceness’ – but only just

The role of the older sibling is vastly underestimated as a musical Castrol GTX in the engine of culture. Shaping youthful taste with deftly-chosen lendings, the sisters and brothers of this world help us forge our musical identities before we’re exposed to the world’s cruel fads. Well, apart from mine, who was into Bon Jovi.

Regina Spektor, though, has been an unacknowledged big sis influence on the sound of many young female artists. You can hear her early work in Florence’s jazzy bellow, in Peggy Sue’s raw-hearted confessions and in Kate Nash’s vocal quirks and proud femininity.

But with her signing to Sire for 2006’s US Top 20 ‘Begin To Hope’ and its overdone production, it seemed Regina’s energies were waning. A swift comparison between the biblical love song ‘Samson’ on second album ‘Songs’ and the reworked version on ‘Begin…’ did not suggest an artist travelling in the right direction. ‘Far’ goes some distance to halt a slide into mere radio-friendly pleasantness, though.

The slightly skanking jaunt of opener ‘The Calculation’ may sound just… nice, but ‘Blue Lips’ and ‘Machine’ soon flash a brittler edge, with tense classical piano and sturm-und-drang Russian emotions a-flutter. ‘Laughing With’ flirts a little with the mawkish – you can’t help but feel “No-one laughs at God in a hospital… but God can be funny at a cocktail party” is the modern-day equivalent of Joan Osborne’s ‘One Of Us’ – but it’s saved by a strong melody. ‘Two Birds’ takes cutesy a step too far and the ‘dolphin’ impersonation on ‘Folding Chair’ is like an irritating toddler, but there’s always a darkness lurking under her affectations, putting her closer to classic singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro, Dory Previn or Joni Mitchell than the anti-folk brigade.

When it breaks into flight, ‘Far’ reaches as high as its title suggests: ‘Human Of The Year’ pairs a typically Spektorian conceit with a lush mid-section on which Spektor’s remarkable, gutsy voice vaults to the rafters of heartbreak. It’s ‘Dance Anthem Of The 80s’, with its sick-naïve look at lust and alienation “in the meat market down the street” and stark vignette ‘Wallet’, though, that really break out the strange energies of old.

Nice to have you back, sis. Can I borrow your new jumper?

Emily Mackay

Click here to get your copy of Regina Spektor’s ‘Far’ from the Rough Trade shop

Free music – Far

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