FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVEBy Suzanne Ely
Loopy. Odd. Playful. It must be Regina Spektor.
Moscow-born Regina Spektor has a loopy way with the English language. On the song "On the Radio," from her new album Begin to Hope, Spektor sings: "It feels a little worse/Than when we drove our hearse/Right through that screaming crowd/While laughing up a storm/Until we were just bone/Until it got so warm that none of us could sleep/And all the Styrofoam began to melt away/We tried to find some worms … "
You get the idea. The jaunty song goes on from this peculiar beginning to reference a DJ who has fallen asleep and, inexplicably, the Guns N' Roses song "November Rain."
Spektor has most definitely mastered the art of penning odd lyrical couplets, a skill first made evident on her 2004 album, Soviet Kitsch. She was summarily lumped in with the Fiona Apples and Cat Powerses of the world, which is no slag, but beyond a ferocious creative independence and a feminist sexuality, the comparisons fizzle out.
Spektor grew up in Russia, and she brings a strong international and multigenerational aesthetic to her songs. She was classically trained on the piano and studied Mozart and Chopin, but her father also brought home black-market copies (banned in Soviet-era Russia) of albums by the Beatles, Queen, and the Moody Blues. After moving with her family to the Bronx, Spektor made her way to the cafés of downtown New York City. Coming up through the antifolk scene and nurtured by bands such as the Strokes, Spektor expanded her repertoire with the inclusion of hip-hop and punk influences.
On Spektor's latest album, she has added flourishes of electric guitar and drum machines to her piano compositions, bearing out her rock and punk persuasions. "Edit" is perhaps the album's most obvious synthesis of classic and current. The song, mixing Spektor's warm voice and ornamental piano passages, has the same choppy and repetitive cadence, skittering beat, and electronic blips as Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place."
Alternatively, "Apres Moi" opens with a sweep of melodramatic piano and a Weimar-era cabaret mood, but there's a Björk-like oddity to Spektor's vocal delivery. She dresses up phrases with hiccups and grunts and draws out a word like yours with an affected bridge-and-tunnel accent. Likewise, on "Better," a vaguely Kelly Clarkson-esque anthem, Spektor repeats the title, and with each pronunciation, the word morphs from something like "bettal," (Russian accent?) to "betta" (New York accent?, and finally "better."
Spektor's dissection of the English language and Dr. Seuss-like playfulness with words are just a few of the oral tricks in the singer's bag. Spektor also utilizes her voice as instrument in a way not heard or accomplished since Björk's groundbreaking album, Medúlla. On the whimsical "Fidelity," Spektor sings: "I hear in my mind all this music/And it breaks my he-ah-ah-ah-ah-heart" - which has the effect of an aural exclamation point.
There is a messiness to the compositions - some thoughts aren't fully formed and words are left unsaid. Some listeners who like their music in genre-specific packages might bristle at this artist's idiosyncrasies. But for the adventurous and open-minded, the trip down Regina Spektor's rabbit hole is a uniquely good time.