Regina Spektor - What We Saw from the Cheap Seats

by Alexis Somerville Rating:7 Release Date:2012-05-28

Previous Regina Spektor albums have spanned the distance from lo-fi indie to shiny poptastic productions. Much of her output has been peppered with affected accents and grating vocal play, while her last offering, Far, was all tarted up for a date with public radio and lost some of the Spektor magic as a result. But the lady can write a damn fine tune, and there are plenty of reasons to keep listening. Somewhere there must exist a happy medium between contrived indie kookiness and polished overproduction.

In What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, some of the aforementioned issues remain: the heaving vocal noises in 'Open' are unnecessary and distracting, as she falls into her old trap of being quirky for the sake of it. The lyrics in 'Ballad of a Politician' are a sticking point, jarring strangely with the lovely goth pop melody. 'Oh Marcello' begins with Spektor singing in a daft Italian accent but manages to sidestep the annoying affectation to become a beautiful homage to Nina Simone's 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood'. Thankfully, the production is not as cloyingly smooth as that on Far.

'Don't Leave Me (ne me quitte pas)' is a re-recording of a track from her 2002 album Songs. Purists might claim the original to be far superior but this new version does have a particularly upbeat charm about it, with a backing track reminiscent of 'Fidelity', one of her breakthrough tracks from Begin to Hope in 2006. 'All the Rowboats' is a live favourite and, cringey beatboxing aside, has earned its place on record, with its dark rhythmic ruminations on the nature of great art trapped in museums.

There is a wider range of musical styles on this album than much of Spektor's previous fayre. 'How' sounds like it could be on the soundtrack to a Disney animation or 80s rom-com, and I mean that as a compliment. 'Firewood' is a sad ballad in a Tom Waits vein. The album closes with the pretty folk vignettes 'Jessica' and 'Call Them Brothers' (a duet with Only Son, solo project of Jack Dishel from Moldy Peaches).

Despite the mix of styles, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats does not sound too disparate and flows naturally from one song to the next - the art of putting an album together in thoughtful order is not forgotten. It does, however, waver in terms of songwriting quality. 'Small Town Moon' and 'The Party' are Spektor-by-numbers, and the forays into contrived vocal stylings subtract from some of the tracks. But at least it's a more interesting listen than its predecessor. There are some great melodies floating around and occasions when her eccentricities work for the music rather than irritate.

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