Regina Spektor
Remember Us To Life


Appearing four years after the release of her previous full-length album - the wonderfully charming What We Saw From The Cheap Seats - Remember Us To Life shows Regina Spektor at the peak of her artistic maturity. In fact, the album features the artist as caught in a state of grace that one can only hope will be replicated in the future, showcasing her command of what one could define as the "building blocks" of her music: her versatile pianism; her knack for story-telling; her effortless, poly-style approach; her prodigious, versatile vocal performances, which on this album are perfectly under control, and a perfect vehicle for her complex melodies.

Remember Us To Life is in some ways an innovative album for the artist, and so, a risky move. Though it features more than a few colourful instrumental touches, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats chose an approach that one could call "minimal", featuring an "idealized" version of the "piano & vocals" dimension that - while not being "the full Spektor" - is always at the core of her music. On What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, under the assured guide of producer Mike Elizondo (with Regina Spektor acting as co-producer), each track is shown under the best light, with almost no effort done to give the album a unified feel, in full confidence that the artist's vocals would give the whole a sense of unity anyway, the producing and mixing work placing the clear-sounding vocals full front.

Remember Us To Life features a great variety of instrumental timbres, starting with string instruments - the whole tonal palette, from double bass and string quartets to a full orchestra - also guitars, keyboards, and various effects. The mixing is very dynamic, with a work of "montage" that in some ways resembles the stage lights in a theatre production. Regina Spektor's vocals are always the main feature even when placed well "inside" the picture, thanks to a skillful work that carefully places the various objects in the stereo field.

Those years after the release of What We Saw From The Cheap Seats brought big changes in the life of the artist: getting married; having a child; having one of her songs - You've Got Time - appearing as the main theme in the Netflix original production Orange Is The New Black. When it comes to what I consider the only weak point of the new album - i.e., having way too much compression (something I'll talk about at length at the end of my review) - I wonder if the intention of being "current" when it comes to the type of sound that the great majority of people is accustomed to could be the main factor behind that (horrible) choice.

Remember Us To Life was produced by Leo Abrahams (again, here Regina Spektor acts as co-producer), and mixed by Dan Grech-Marguerat. With the only exception of the track that closes the album's deluxe edition, Remember Us To Life was recorded at world-famous The Village Studios, Los Angeles. Mastered by Bob Ludwig, at Gateway Mastering Studios, Maine.

Let's have a look at the instrumentation. Regina Spektor is obviously on vocals, piano, keyboards, and synth. Leo Abrahams plays various instruments, a role where his contributions sound in many ways extremely important. Regina Spektor and Leo Abrahams wrote the string arrangements. A few songs feature violins and violas as orchestrated and performed by Davide Rossi. Sellers Of Flowers - the track that sonically differs a great deal from the other tracks on the album - features The City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, with Andrew Skeet acting as Director and Arranger.

Other musicians also appear. Here I'll mention Joey Waronker and Jay Bellerose, on drums and percussion; and Mike Elizondo, on electric bass and double bass. But just like it happens when it comes to an orchestra, musicians appearing on this album were asked to play notes, not to offer a recognizable instrumental signature.

With a total duration of one hour - the album proper featuring eleven tracks, the deluxe edition (the one I review here, and the one I suggest readers listen to) adding three more - Remember Us To Life offers a great variety of styles, also a precise sense of direction.

My review being late offers me the great privilege of being able to comment on the way the album was (mostly) reviewed. It's not a beautiful sight. What I found especially worrying was that - in a paradoxical topsy-turvy of the often talked-about battlefield appearing under the tag "Old people just don't seem to be able to understand young people's music" - many reviewers did not appear to be in any way familiar with things such as "melody", the "development" of a song, or the concept of "instrumentation", when it includes strings and a piano. Quite often, reviewers also appeared incapable of attributing any "meaning" to a composition made of things other than "rhythmic cells", even more so when the "story" told in the lyrics was different from a "real life tale" as "lived" by "public figures" who tell "an autobiographical tale".

As per my usual, I'll have a quick look at the songs.

Bleeding Heart has a chorus that in a way resembles a sing-along, a children song. Here the instrumentation features synth, bass drum, and strings. Three piano chords open the second part, which features a "noisy", effervescent-sounding, section. This is followed by a spectacular coda featuring vocals and piano. Released as the album's first single, while sounding quite "user-friendly", the song appears to be a meditation on suffering, torment, and hurt, due to a process of marginalization when one is in one's younger days, and in spite of a successful healing process shows wounds that are still open. The song's coda - with those prodigious octave jumps and a word ("learn") that sounds as being sung by Joni Mitchell - is so burning hot as to hurt its author. (Check the artist's wet eyes, and her glance resembling a castaway's, at the end of her performance on The Stephen Colbert Show, last September.)

Older And Taller is an appropriate choice for track #2: lively, rhythmic, light, in a way quite Beatles-sounding. Fine strings also acting as a counterpoint. There's a fine, "symphonic-sounding" bridge.

Grand Hotel has a "waltz" feel, reminding one of fables and old tales. Piano and strings to the foreground. Fine, "dreamy" bridge, with celesta.

Small Bill$ is a track sounding almost like hip-hop, with great rhythm; half-spoken, with a "Cossack-like" sing-along motif. Strings, and a fine coda.

Black And White is a ballad (mostly) for piano and vocals, strings, drums, which "blooms" in the chorus. A bit too repetitive, in my opinion this is the album's only weak track, but it works well as a kind of "bridge" towards the album's second part.

The Light has a clear start for piano and vocals, and is one of the album's best tracks. Played as a duo with Leo Abrahams, it gets dressed with "symphonic clothes", featuring synth. A "surprise bridge", and excellent vocals.

The Trapper And The Furrier presents a kind of "political" landscape, its melody not too far in mood from Après Moi. The development is quite tense- and dramatic-sounding. Echoes of theatre, maybe Kurt Weill. Fine orchestration: cello, double bass, violin.

Tornadoland offers a change of pace, with a light start. Then the song becomes dramatic, and not too distant from a menacing moment from a movie soundtrack, the instrumentation here featuring double bass, violin, cello, synth. The coda has an "almost c&w" feel.

Obsolete is another album highlight, with a melody that sounds like an opera. It starts with piano and vocals, a mourning melody, its panorama progressively including synth, percussion, cello, and Leo Abrahams's live processing. Strong stuff.

Sellers Of Flowers sounds like a parable, featuring vocals, piano, and celesta. Here the orchestra engulfs the vocals and the tale, with a mood that's tense, dark, and mysterious.

The Visit has an airy start, with piano and vocals, then strings appear. The song possesses an extraordinary melodic development, for a theme that (I think) is a serene meditation on time and death. There's a poetic coda, for a song that acts as a perfect conclusion - and resolution - to the album in its "regular" guise.

Those three tracks that are featured on the deluxe edition are of the same high caliber.

New Year offers a scene that in a way reminded me of Picture Window by Nick Hornby and Ben Folds, off their album Lonely Avenue. Strange to say, I often "played it" in my mind as sung by Scott Walker in his "classic" period, circa his albums Scott 3 and 4. With an old widow - that's my take - as its main character, the song is a meditation on survival. But it's one thing reading it on paper, quite another to hear it as sung by a strong voice, to remind us that singing is a physical activity - just like survival. Snare drum played brushes, strings, the guitar playing arpeggios "inside" the piano, Elizondo on double bass.

The One Who Stayed And The One Who Left is a ballad for piano, vocals, and strings, sounding like an apologue. Very fine development, with appropriate strings. The chorus features a quite superb melody. Bridge. A surprise, out jump Joni Mitchell's vocals, from her Blue days: "I never wanted the bright lights in my eyes // I'm much too quiet". In a sense, this is the "real" album closer.

End Of Thought is an appropriate close, with echoes, a cryptic, highly dramatic, mood, for a song that's maybe an unreleased track from the What We Saw From The Cheap Seats sessions. Played as a duo with Elizondo, the song features keyboards, echoes, a boomy piano, and multiple vocals.

The time has now come to discuss the sound of the album, which as I mentioned above I found to be compressed way beyond the acceptable. It's a part of the listening sphere that here I separate from the music only analytically, since "the sound of music" is something one listens to at the same time as the music, and not separately.

Looking at the date on the calendar, and remembering a few heated discussions I happened to read on the Web in the last few weeks, I understand it's imperative that I proceed with great caution. Nowadays, for a lot of people, this is a side of music that "does not exist". I still remember when, a couple of years ago, I told a record shop owner in my town that the tweeters in his speakers were fried. "It's the music that sounds like this", he replied (we were listening to St. Vincent's new album).

It's a topic that doesn't get talked about anymore, both in the "professional" reviews and in those more "casual" conversations. There's been talk of "a new sound". But in my opinion, excessive compression, while always annoying, makes it impossible for one to appreciate the music when it comes to certain styles, where it appears to work "against" the music.

While listening to Remember Us To Life I noticed that I could understand almost all the words - a sure sign of too much compression - and that I could only listen to the album at very moderate sound levels. The mixes don't lack variety, but the sound doesn't "breath", it lacks "air". Sometimes it sounds like Regina Spektor's voice is squashed by a "glass ceiling".

While I know that it's true that those tables that one can easily find on the Web and which show an album's DR in its various formats cannot be a good substitute for careful personal listening, it's also true that the coefficient for Remember Us To Life doesn't differ a whole lot from the ones relative to those new albums by Beyoncè and Rihanna (while at the same time being better than the one for the new album by The Rolling Stones).

The main point is that, while a certain use of compression can benefit certain styles and certain songs - a good for instance here being the track Small Bill$, which already sounds quite reminiscent of "hip-hop" - the same is not true for the other tracks on the album. Grand Hotel is supposed to sound quite majestic, coming out of our loudspeakers, not staying confined inside. The same is true for the wide painting that's Obsolete, and the whole album. And it's no consolation that Grand Hotel - the old album by Procol Harum - becomes less and less "Grand" with every successive "renovation", from the original vinyl, to those early versions on CD, to those later, much compressed editions.

So I immediately started dreaming about a new edition of Remember Us To Life, remastered, say, by the great Steve Hoffman. But then I thought: What if it isn't a mastering issue? Here the mastering engineer is the legendary Robert Ludwig, who gave a lot of colour to What We Saw From The Cheap Seats.

While I have no way of knowing what really happened, after quite a few listening sessions I made an educated guess: that an excessive amount of compression was added at the end of the mixing stage, before the mastering; as experience shows, when artists - or their entourage - become accustomed to a "loud" sound, they find any alternative version to sound "wimpy", and especially so when compared to the sound of those who "compete" in the marketplace.

I'll say it again: Remember Us To Life is not an ugly album to listen to, and anyway, it's not as ugly-sounding as a lot of music that one listens to nowadays. But such a great voice - and such great songs! - sure deserve a lot better, as it's easily demonstrated by those video concerts that are widely - and legally - available on the Web which feature Regina Spektor performing most of her new album, and some "golden oldies" from her repertoire.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2016 | Dec. 27, 2016