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Figuring out where Regina Spektor is going to take a song is like trying to follow a house fly: her voice bobs and weaves, twitches, chirps, lifts and drops, floats and hangs. Her choices on piano can be equally surprising. And yet when she’s finished, you can’t imagine that she could have done it differently. That’s an incredible talent: to make music so idiosyncratic sound not pretentious or artificial, but completely natural.
Her quirky (what’s a word beyond quirky? Quirky to the nth power?) talents are on full and rapturous display on What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (out May 29). Clocking in at less than 38 minutes, its new tunes are a tad more restrained than some of her previous work, but still demonstrate her capacity for astonishingly diverse and interesting music.
The second tune, “Oh Marcello,” is a showcase for everything wild and wonderful about Spektor. She adopts the chorus of The Animals’ “Misunderstood” but her voice drops off into minor key sadness at the end and/or lifts in sudden trills and decorations. The verses (sung over an electric piano) are rapidly spoken, almost incomprehensible, nonsensical and yet threatening. And, yes, that’s her voice in there doing drum fills. It’s a tour de force. “Open” is a dramatic number with sad verses supported by quiet piano notes, which then lifts to a strong pleading chorus backed by pounded lower note runs on the piano. It’s almost normal until the last bridge when she startles you with one of her trademark guttural vocal intakes.
“Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” is a slice of upbeat calypso with a wonderfully catchy chorus and whimsical lyrics, a reminder that I occasionally get so caught up in her vocal talents that I forget to listen to the lyrics, which is a shame as she writes some gems. “All the Rowboats” (which adds some synth drum pads and retro notes to her usual piano) imagines masterpieces in an art gallery wanting to escape after centuries of hanging on the walls, concluding “It’s their own fault for being timeless.”
It’s not all vocal gymnastics and oddball moments. “Firewood” is a straightforward slow number, enlivened only by some unexpected piano flourishes at the end. “How” is a sweet torch song. “Patron Saint,” a faster tune, is equally restrained – and quite lovely.
I love “Ballad of a Politician” with its hilarious chorus of “Shake it, shake it, baby, shake your ass out in that street” and Russian-themed music. Imagining politicians as prostitutes might not be the most original idea but Spektor breathes fresh life into the notion.
You may hear Regina Spektor described as an “acquired taste.” If you haven’t acquired the taste yet, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is a great place to begin.