Regina Spektor
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats


As readers will see in a moment, it was a very bizarre path that lead me to write this review of Regina Spektor's new album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, released about two months ago.

It was in... 2005, I think, while leafing through a music magazine, that I happened to see the cover of a recently-released CD whose featured image I found to be not quite to my taste, almost repellent, in fact (and yes, had I known at the time that both title and picture were in some ways related to the work of Milan Kundera my aesthetic judgment would have stayed exactly the same).

Being faithful to the task of making a new name appear to be of interest to readers of said magazine, the reviewer in question painted a picture of this young lady - born in Moscow, Russia, she emigrated to the USA, was now living in the Bronx - which highlighted those features - anger and poverty, being part of the "anti-folk" (?) movement, possessing an iconoclastic spirit, writing a song called Chemo Limo - which he obviously considered to be the right ones to throw readers the hook, i.e. to draw a parallel between Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch and Patti Smith's debut album, Horses. But since I had bought an import copy of Horses hot off the presses at the time when an Italian release was still a mere possibility, I quickly turned the page and completely forgot all about Regina Spektor.

Maybe it's because I live a sheltered life, but in the following years I had no chance to update the story. I seem to remember reading a review lamenting Spektor's commercialization, her new releases now smooth and slick, quite far from the "punk" spirit of her first three albums (so Soviet Kitsch had not been her real debut, after all, just the album distributors and publicists had decided to push). Hearing Spektor on a Ben Folds album didn't help, that being the worst song on Folds's weakest album to date.

Years passed, and it was while exploring the music section of a shop - part of a big chain - that I saw the new album by Regina Spektor, Live In London, being offered on the cheap, in a  CD + DVD-V configuration.

Since it's my firm belief that in order to refine one's critical capabilities one has to risk throwing money to the wind (an event which hurts one a lot more than merely wasting one's time downloading stuff for free, only to decide that it stinks, then throw it away), I decided to buy the thingee. Watching her live, I reasoned, would help me understand if she was any good - and it goes without saying that nobody would choose what s/he considers to be the worst part of their repertory in order to consign it to posterity on film.

Back home, I saw that the director was Adria Petty (some of my readers may have heard of her father, Tom), put the DVD-V inside the slot, and after watching two tracks I asked myself, wide-eyed: "How come she's so good, and yet I've never heard of her?". I'll immediately add that in my opinion Live In London is the perfect album to get in order to know Regina Spektor, for many reasons I'll discuss at length in a minute (the featured music was produced and mixed by David Kahne, the CD can be a good companion during one of those trips by car, or while commuting to work by bus, or the tube).

The sound of the concert is quite good, the director's editing is very "musical", quite "in tune" with the music being performed. There's enough prep work shown to point in the general direction of the craft applied to the music being performed, but not in a pedantic way. Spektor is on piano (it's a strange reddish thing, with real strings, quite tiny but with a big sound, rich with harmonics... what kind of instrument is this?), and obviously on vocals, with fine backing by a string quartet sounding halfway between classical music and George Martin's arrangements for The Beatles; and a fine drummer, Dave Heilman, who's quite good at both keeping time and as a colourist; just consider how disrupting a drummer can be when the music played flows from a piano groove - and watch the way Spektor directs the drummer at the start of Fidelity, to make sure they all agree where "one" is before she starts singing the song (whose lyrics, by the way, reminded me of the famous Duke Ellington saying which goes "Music Is My Mistress").

Possessing a substantial backing in classical music, and with a knowledge of "pop" and "rock" music that's by necessity quite sketchy and largely ex post - which is something to be expected, given her age (by the way: born in Moscow in 1980, she emigrated at the age of nine thanks to Perestroika, and so on and so forth, all news once reserved to those who received those press releases - "she studied with piano prodigy Sonia Vargas" - now easily available on Wikipedia, so facchiù), Spektor's influences are for the most part quite easy to see, but please let's try not to be too lazy here, agreed? For instance, just listen to the tense track titled Après Moi: with just a few minor adjustments - add a roll of Guy Evens's timpani here, a harsh blow of David Jackson's soprano sax there - the song could be a track off one of Peter Hammill's albums from the mid-70s (one can almost see Hammill raising his fist in the air). It goes without saying that it's extremely unlikely that Regina Spektor has ever listened to Hammill, but if we limit our choice to, say, Peter Hammill and Joni Mitchell, the song will remind the listener more of the former, than the latter, artist.

What I'm aiming at here is that I still see around, quite alive and well, that peculiar attitude that traces similarities to sex. From "girl with guitar" to "girl with piano" - now "boy has laptop" - the danger is to think about aesthetics as related to one "being female", not to the practice of playing the piano - and where's Ben Folds? One has to think about, instead, how studying the piano makes one's harmonic palette grow richer, while at the same time making one familiar with those solutions to musical problems that those who pressed the keys before us made available to all piano players. (Me capiste?)

The repertory performed by Regina Spektor in this concert is excellent in both quality and variety. Even the lighter moments are good - check those tracks with twangy guitar such as Bobbing For Apples and That Time; or the joyous C&W hoedown called Love, You're A Whore; or the bluesy Silly Eye-Color Generalizations, performed by Spektor a cappella. There's a lot to mention. The octave jumps of Hotel Song, a song which sounds not too distant from relaxed Joni Mitchell in her Court And Spark period. A song which sounds as part of a musical, Sailor Song. The contagious rhythmic charge of songs such as On The Radio, Folding Chair, The Calculation, Us, Fidelity. There's the bizarre tale of Dance Anthem Of The 80s. The polychromatic mysteries called Laughing With, Blue Lips, Wallet, Man Of A Thousand Faces, Samson. I could go on. It has to be noticed that nothing Spektor does here could be called "tentative". (Quotes galore, too, the one which surprised me the most being the vocal figure in the style of The Swingle Singers, perfect to the letter, which appears in Two Birds, on her album Far.)

Regina Spektor the singer is something else. Precise, spotless, but never cold, she makes everything she sings sound simple thanks to her uncommon technical means and her dressing precision with mood. Listen in the section B of Laughing With how effortlessly she sings those long notes followed by groups of brief notes sung very close (a figure very dear to Frank Zappa in some of his more melodic guitar solos, or in some thematic expositions for marimba).

Right at this moment it's my duty to warn readers that a surplus of attention will be asked of them. It's a complex issue (whose nature, of course, is entirely hypothetical), that I'll introduce thus.

At the end of the concert, sitting at the piano, almost entirely in the dark, Regina Spektor starts one of her signature songs, Samson, only to stop quite suddenly, then saying (in her speaking voice, which sounds quite different from her singing voice): "Sorry. It scared me.". Adding, by way of explanation, "I'm easily spooked." I don't think it's very common for an artist to be scared by one of their creations, but I have to add that, while watching this movie, it occurred to me that Spektor regards her creations (here I mean her songs, all implied scenarios included) as possessing a "palpable" reality. I have to say that, while investigating her "weight" in the media, while having a look on the Web at those articles, reviews, and interviews about her (talking about my USA colleagues, of course, Italy not really being a part of this discourse, for quite obvious reasons - and this time, for once, magazine D made the right decision when they chose to translate a piece off The New York Times) I seemed to detect more than a whiff of irony about some traits of Spektor's artistry.

Let's start like this: Spektor's narration is of the "objective" kind (here two words will suffice: Eleanor Rigby). Hence, her songs are more similar to novels, or stories, than to the more "confessional" first-person narratives that nowadays abound. Going on in my speculative effort, I'll define Spektor's (narrative) world as somewhat pre-modern (those who cultivate precision in their definitions are invited to think: Max Weber). It's a world where things still have a soul, and death still has meaning. Readers are invited to listen to Wallet (which, by the way, possesses a very captivating melody): who else could have written a story such as this? Maybe Ray Davis, when The Kinks were in their Something Else/Village Green period (it was almost fifty years ago!). Here we also have, of course, more than a pinch of humanism. But what we're talking about is not (merely) a wallet.

Let's have a quick look at her discography. Soviet Kitsch (2004) is still an embryonic work, Spektor being quite uncertain about what to do. The album features such excellent tracks as Ode To Divorce, Us, and Sailor Song, though.

A cover portrait that has her looking like a vampire on holiday, Begin To Hope (2006) was a hit album. There are a lot of future concert staples, a strange-sounding track such as Edit (which to me reads like an unfavourable portrait of a record producer), and two blues tracks (Lady, Summer In The City) which a lot of people like but which to me sound like Spektor and The Blues don't necessarily make for a perfect match. There's also a horrible drummer - Shawn Pelton, whom I've never met before, or since - who is as inventive and versatile as a cheap drum machine. The album shows Spektor to be vocally more mature than before, but not yet at her peak.

Far (2009) is her best selling album to date. Understandably, this is where a lot of the tracks featured on the aforementioned Live album come from. But there are a few more fine tracks here: Human Of The Year, Two Birds, Genius Next Door, One More Time With Feeling. Spektor the singer has really grown, her vocals now "sitting" more naturally among the instruments. Reading some of the comments about this album made me laugh, some reviewers expressing their disappointment at the album's "slick" sound, so campaigning for a "back to the roots" approach sounding like Soviet Kitsch. Well, there are a lot of people for whom reading the name Jeff Lynne is enough to cause them convulsions, regardless of the actual results (it would be fun to have all CDs released without any printed credits...). Here Mike Elizondo is the producer of four tracks, and he wisely decided to feature drummer Matt Chambelain (whom I had the pleasure to meet for the first time on Fiona Apple's debut album, Tidal).

And here we are. It looks like What We Saw From The Cheap Seats didn't fully convince some of my USA colleagues, here I'll try to add a few items to the discussion. (Let's leave aside the fact of the new album featuring for the most part songs that Spektor had already performed in concert, something that's not at all entirely new for her, but that for some reason was treated like a new minus.)

I think that the most productive way to look at this album is to look at it side-by-side with Far. While the predecessor sounded, in a way, all of one piece, the fact of it being the product of the work of four different producers (and their collaborators) notwithstanding, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats offers a variety when it comes to music styles that's in a way unprecedented on a Spektor album, even though the new album has only one producer, Mike Elizondo (Spektor acts as a co-producer). For reasons of intellectual honesty I have to declare that Elizondo is far from being my favourite record producer, so, by way of compensation, here I could be guilty of erring in his favour. And I'd be a liar if I said that I found the way Elizondo produced Fiona Apple's album from a few years ago, Extraordinary Machine, to be to my taste.

Elizondo is a skilled producer, and a good bass player. The fact that he decided to use two skilled drummers such as Aaron Sterling and Jay Bellerose doesn't hurt. Instrumentation is quite sparse, with a few extras on some tracks, Spektor herself being on piano and keyboards. The way I see it, here the goal was to make the most of every single track, making a potential hit single out of each one, without worrying too much about the coherence of the whole. I have to admit that listening to the song that sounds like a calypso - a limbo, maybe? - Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas), while buying groceries at the supermarket, a few days ago, was a pleasant experience. But while arrangements are (for the most part) appropriately sparse, lotsa sounds sound really "big". But here I have to add that - myself excluded - nobody I know raises this kind of questions when talking to me, so maybe this point is not terribly important for the general listener (let's hear it for Elizondo: when it comes to recorded sound, compared to this one, most albums should never be released) (but compared to Fiona Apple's new one, this one sounds just like a big piece of plastic).

Paradoxes abound. The song How features what is maybe the most perfect performance Spektor has given us in a "classic" style, something that reminded me of Percy Sledge and Otis Redding - or, more appropriately, Aretha Franklin as produced by Arif Mardin. Listen to the way she enunciates the song's key line - "You are a guest here now" - and the skillful pause that follows. Just one question, though. What if this track went to #1, and then become part of the modern repertory, à la American Idol? Would we become sick of it in a hurry? Sure, forty-five years after the fact I can still enjoy Penny Lane, but...

Small Town Moon is a nice opener, with an instrumental "slice" that reminded me of Fiona Apple. Oh Marcello is a funny song with substance - and what episode do we remember most from La Dolce Vita? Marcello, maybe, here with a side-dish of music from Lazio, the Madonna and those killers, with the function played by "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" that appears quite self-evident to me ("I'm just a soul whose intentions are good" (...) "Understood?").

Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas) is the aforementioned calypso, with a fine wind section. Firewood is maybe the best thing on the album, a meditation on death which lives inside an appropriate metaphor.

Patron Saint is a fine track that maybe suffers for being placed between Firewood and the aforementioned How.

All The Rowboats is instrumentally jerky, with an unusual topic (maybe, in the old days, Gentle Giant...).

I didn't dislike the drama of Ballad Of A Politician, but it's Open that's another peak here, a mysterious, chilled painting that I'll leave to readers' interpretation.

The Party is an excellent track that needs no explanation. Listen to the way Spektor sings the first and last verses, with a voice that's quite near to her speaking voice. This is the album's "real" close.

In closing, the brief Jessica gives the album an appropriate sense of resolution.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2012 | July 28, 2012