Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Regina Spektor

There is a long and deep tradition of outstanding female singer-songwriters who employ the piano as their primary instrument, from Carol King and Carly Simon of the classic rock era, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple representing the alternative period, to the more jazz and R&B-inspired efforts of Norah Jones and Alicia Keys of the current decade. In this particular component of popular music, women certainly have achieved a greater depth of achievement than men, as although Billy Joel, Elton John and, more recently, Ben Folds, have found lengthy careers penning tunes on the 88s, the number of successful women behind the keys is double, and that's without mentioning other talented pianists like Natalie Merchant, Kate Bush, Elanor Whitmore and previous New Music Tuesdays profile, Valery Gore. And while it might be tempting to group the emerging Regina Spektor and her new album, Far – released today – with this cohort of ladies of the bench, Spektor's work doesn't so neatly line-up with the others'.

The Moscow-born Spektor seems to have not only inspired by predecessors such as King and Amos, but also a broader array of songwriters such as Buffalo's own Ani DiFranco, the nerdy contributions of the Johns (Flansbaugh and Linnell) and even pop maestros like Jeff Lynne, the latter of whom co-produced and performed on several cuts on Far. It is this underpinning of influences that allow Spektor not to be pressed by the piano's possibilities and pratfalls, but instead drive the instrument to conform to the needs of her material, in much the same manner as DiFranco employs her acoustic guitar accompaniments.

This approach is revealed in the range of musical directions delivered on the 13-track compilation. There are, of course, the upbeat pop standards that fueled her breakthrough 2006 offering, Begin to Hope. Lead-off number "The Calculation" is a bouncy affair that follows nicely in the tradition of the singles "Fidelity" and "On the Radio" of her previous release, while mid-album cut "Folding Chair" likewise skips along at a brisk pace. Neither track would be out of place alongside McCartney's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or "Lady Madonna." But rather than serving-up a baker's dozen of whimsical pop ditties, Spektor explores some less conventional spaces. On two tracks, she seems more interested in exploring how tonal and phrasing choices in her lyrics can produce new rhythmic directions, as found in "Eet" – a dance through various rhymes involving that letter combination, such as street, meet and feet – while "Dance Anthem of the 80's" seems to blend an Apollo 18-era They Might Be Giants track with OutKast's "Hey Ya" – an interesting contrast certainly, although I'm not sure if I could handle it on continual repeat.

And yet, on this same collection, Spektor also presents a trio of songs rooted in some consideration of faith or belief, in "Blue Lips," "Laughing With," and "Human of the Year." Her willingness to allow these concepts form the lyrical basis of a song is hardly common these days, and she includes no masking of her intentions on "Laughing With," as she seems to chide both glass-house atheism and religious fanaticism in the same verse; no small feat.

The album actually builds steam as it progresses, with its latter tracks also serving as its best. "Two Birds" is a mid-tempo lamentation on co-dependency that could have as easily been penned by former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page and found its way onto his former band's Maroon collection from 2000. Meanwhile, the back-to-back ballads of "Genius Next Door" and "Wallet" demonstrate Spektor's narrative talents, revealing the respective plots of a Walden Pond-esque character and the discovery of a forgotten wallet and the narrator's quick glimpse into his life before returning the object to a nearby Blockbuster. "One More Time with Feeling" might be my favorite effort on the record, flirting between a blues number and something off Lennon's Instant Karma.

Come for: "The Calculation"
Stay for: "One More Time with Feeling"
You'll be surprised by: "Laughing With"

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