New York City’s Regina Spektor has, for some time now, been the final word in baroque pop. She is the genre measure.
What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, her sixth studio album, is her most recent addition to an already stellar catalogue.
Records like Soviet Kitsch, Begin to Hope and Songs are essential listening, and were seminal to the alternative sound of 2000s. The gauntlet she’s thrown down is formidable – she’s a successful, non-elitist art house musician with diverse appeal, checking boxes that others cannot. But more on that later.
Small Town Moon, the opener, eases us gradually but certainly into a record that clearly hopes to advance the Regina Spektor game. There’s the Spektor we know as far as clear yet playful harmonies, strong piano segments and wistful themes go, and there’s flashes of the Spektor we’re about to meet.
Oh Marcello has received mixed reviews, and it does come off as a bit of a hot mess (some lines are sung in a cartoonish Italian accent, apropos of nothing). But after a few listens it goes from the weird kid eating her crayons at the back of the classroom, to the weird kid sharing her crayons with you, and it’s sort of bizarrely adorable.
Firewood is the sort of heartbreaker that’s become synonymous with the Regina Spektor name, reminding us of everything that was glorious on earlier tracks like Samson and Better. How is an almost Motown ballad that 12 year-old Michael Jackson might have sung flawlessly.
First single All the Rowboats brings in thin layers of grisly guitars and ominous chords that bring to bear the artist that The Strokes fell in love with when the Regina Spektor circus began.
There are two overt references to Nina Simone on the album, that I’ve identified:
- Oh Marcello features the lines “I’m just a girl whose intentions are good/ Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…” (The original writers are credited).
- The second single is entitled Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas). It is not a cover.
There are a couple of possible reasons for this:
- Spektor, like Simone, is a peculiar, wonderful, transcontinental pianist.
- Indie girls love Nina Simone (no exceptions).
Regardless, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is cheeky, brave, earnest and unflinching. The mark of a great artist is growth, and there are deliberate moves to progress here – sometimes they come off as avant garde for avant garde’s sake, and sometimes they pay off handsomely.
Huntress Thompson rating: 6/10
Now. Getting back to the art house issue, artists like Spektor (and there are few in her company) are a very specific breed of classically trained performers whose sound doesn’t alienate the uninitiated ear.
Bruce Dickinson, Tori Amos, Steve Vai, most of Radiohead and Grizzly Bear are all classically trained by some form of musical institute, but have found fans on either side of the academic line.
Because really, how much snobbery should be allowed in music, and how much democracy? The idea of musicians making music for musicians sounds dangerously elitist, but there are also obvious advantages.
In rock, genres like metal, prog and art rock have been especially vulnerable to this sort of exclusivity. Bands like Dream Theater, Opeth and Tool, while excellent, tend to create densely technical landscapes of sound to which the untrained listener is often completely impervious.
I really don’t know where I stand on this, and I think we’ll need to hash this one out in the comments section below, but if I’m leaning towards any sort of conclusion here, it’s this: As much as we appreciate the fact that these musicians are graduates, listeners probably shouldn’t have to be classically trained to appreciate their records, should they? We should be able to enjoy Regina Spektor from “the cheap seats”, so to speak.
There are obvious benefits to some degree of snobbery in music, and developing a more discerning listener who can identify great from good can only be a positive, but on a primarily level, I’m not happy with music that’s fundamentally educational.
And as much as I appreciate challenging music, I can’t think of a single technically great song that I can dance to. Tool are brilliant, and I love them, but they aren’t fun. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s probably not the measure of greatness, is it?
Ok, enough out of me. Where are you guys on this?
In the vacuum between dark and light, Siouxsie Sioux and Emmylou Harris, Amelie and Travis Bickle, Huntress Thompson is an idiot lost, and reporting from the field. If you’re after irrational, impassioned rants about cupcakes and Johnny Cash (and you probably aren’t), she’s grumpy, but she’s your girl.