If there are two sides to Regina Spektor, you can classify this album as “Regina Classic”. That’s not necessarily to classify the other side of her music as “Regina Lite” or “Diet Regina”, but there is certainly more character in the classic flavor—despite how incredibly talented she’s proved to be on every one of her recordings.
When we were first introduced to Ms. Spektor, she was hitting a drum stick on a wooden chair to keep rhythm, and playing piano with her other hand while singing. Though it wasn’t her first, 2004’s Soviet Kitsch was creative, original, quirky, and defiant of contemporary pop. Though the majority of us didn’t hear this until her next album was released to worldwide fanfare, we were blown away and fell in love instantly. Her blockbuster, 2006’s Begin To Hope, still had the creativity, originality, and quirkiness – not to mention her irresistible vocal range – but allowed for more acceptance of the mainstream, something you never would have expected from Kitsch or 2001’s 11:11. The best bets placed her between Fiona Apple and Bjork, eccentric and untamable, and too good to be ignored. But she proved to have a little Feist in her, too: embracing the catchiness of radio vibes though never giving up her own sound.
So when Far came out in 2009, even though it was at the same level of musical talent as Hope, it was surrounded by less excitement. There’s a thousand and one great pop artists with beautiful voices and creative songs, what had made Regina special was that she wasn’t a pop artist, she was simply a girl who liked to play music and didn’t seem to care what about high quality production or simple song structure. Where Hope showed progression and brought her originality to the forefront of indie-pop, Far, while beautiful and certainly flavorful, was stagnant – at least when compared to Spektor’s other albums. And that, unfortunately, was not as attractive to her devoted few.
But now, with her latest jaunt, Spektor has reverted back to her overly charismatic ways. It’s a breath of fresh air, really. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is the spirit of Soviet Kitsch with more resources and maturity. Where she used to bang on chairs, she’s now got a fat bass and echoing percussion. It’s the production quality of Hope with the heart of Kitsch—a combination most of us have been pining for. Of course, that’s not all. There are also sweet piano ballads, vocals in French (again harking back to her earlier days), and Hollocaust allusions.
“Small Town Moon” opens with a simple piano part accompanied by Spektor’s cool throaty voice begging the question, “How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?” The song soon breaks open into a clapping rhythm, as the narrator realizes that leaving her small town is the best thing for her. The tune plays with breaking rhythms as Spektor plays tricks on us with her voice. “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” is the “Fidelity” of the record, though not quite as amorous. Again, Spektor experiments with her vocals on the chorus, and again, the song and its repetitive end refrain sits in your head long after you hear it—it’s a calm but energetic bounce. One of the only straight songs on the album – straight meaning not colored too brightly by Spektor’s quirk – is “How”, a beautiful, tasteful jazz ballad decorated only by piano, vocals, and some light background noises.
“All the Rowboats” is far and away the most powerful song on the record (if not the most powerful song Spektor has written to date), even if on first read-through of the lyrics, it’s about a depressing pass through a museum. A haunting piano piece does wonders to cut the soul. The piece rises and falls like a boat caught in a sea storm, and you feel trapped in both the calm and comparative chaos until it ends in what could be small explosions, holes being blasted out of the hull, ultimately sinking the ship and all hopes of survival.
With Cheap Seats, Spektor may not necessarily reclaim her seat in the indie spotlight – her album had the unfortunate timing of being released just before Fiona Apple’s most recent record – but it certainly brings back her credibility as an artist who will not jump to please the masses, but instead will please the masses by doing what she does best. That is, have fun, play games, and make beautiful music.