Regina Spektor is one of those artists–like Tom Waits, David Byrne, or Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors–who fans either love or hate, and most often as result of her peculiar singing style. On new album What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, that fact won’t change, as Spektor digs in to her expected sound with gritted bubblegum teeth. But that’s all Spektor was ever going to do.
“Firewood” provides not only a good test for listeners, but captures Spektor’s approach to music well:
The piano is not firewood yet
But the cold does get cold
so it soon might be that
I’ll take it apart, call up my friends
and we’ll warm up our hands by the fire
The simple beauty of the melody, classic piano orchestration, and Spektor’s alluring, wavering voice seem enough to drown out any criticisms, even as she ruminates on acquiescing. “But at least we’ll get hurt trying,” she sings in a line detractors are likely to focus on as the kind of ham-handed pop sentimentality they find unjustifiable in Spektor’s music–but in context of the song, it shows Spektor knows her limits, knows she fills a role for a certain kind of music fan and not others.
And in that role, she thrives. Opener “Small Town Moon” flows from tender piano ballad to radio pop rock, from adventurousness and girl power to nervous puttering:
‘Cause we’re gonna get real old
Today we’re younger than we’re ever gonna be
The complex between the two sides of that coin give an outline of Spektor’s aesthetic, bringing the playful and childish into adult pop. Taking naive emotions seriously in “Patron Saint“, another song that unbelievers will harp on, she is neither subtle nor precise, but refreshing in her embrace of the trauma typically sheltered in irony. Choosing instead to drive ahead with quirk and staccato rhythms, Spektor offers an apology to ailing romantics:
Lies, lies, lies
Her patron saint, broken and lame
and absolutely insane for learning that true love exists
I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord please don’t let me be misunderstood
It sounds like Spektor assuring us of her honesty, her utterly earnest intentions. But with single “All the Rowboats“, that assurance becomes unnecessary. She hits her stride with a perfect use of her off-kilter style. Dance club drum beats with drum machine ticks and simple piano rhythms refute any complaints about Spektor’s music. Her terrific voice dances through engagingly odd melodies:
They will stay there, in their gold frames
for forever, forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away
This is a song only Spektor could pull off, a song that counteracts the caricatured gasps on “Open” and distracting kazoo impersonations on “The Party“. The same happens in “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” as the infectious pop somehow allows one to ignore the fact that Spektor seriously says “Bronxy Bronx“.
The problem, however, is that “All the Rowboats” isn’t the kind of song that can be made into an album. Spektor has sung herself into a corner, trapped herself in a sound in a way that Waits, Byrne, and Longstreth have all very consciously avoided. She does what she does well–but it’s not a sound I find myself craving for long periods of time. Spektor is not the cartoon her detractors paint her as–but her purposeful cartoonish qualities are both her benefit and her disadvantage.