Earnestness, a cloying quality in most music, becomes the secret to this piano-based singer/songwriter's success.
Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch begins with the sound of a heartbeat. Not much could be more appropriate than this. This is a record that is nothing if not messily human. It veers in one direction only to turn around and go in the other. It offers sage truths and then dumps a juvenile clunker on your head. It sounds like a cabaret show if cabaret were invented in the 21st century by intelligent, sarcastic adolescents who not only stole their parents' Philip Glass and David Bowie records, but then listened to them while flipping through nudie magazines found in an older brother's room, trying to waste their days away until they grew up and could actually do something.
This would seem to be a good time for Regina Spektor to be around. She could sell her hip sensitive wares to the hyper-cool Strokes audience (whom she opened for), steal the critics' accolades away from Nellie McKay, and then become the purchase for young-ish professionals looking for somewhat edgy dinner music to play as the discussion turns to the latest Wes Anderson film. All of these could, and should, apply to Ms. Spektor. The combination of these disparate possible audiences could be a negative quality, as if the artist had spread herself too thin. Instead, perhaps due to her young age (mid-20s, albeit old by manufactured-band standards) and/or background (born and lived in Russia until nine, then moved to the Bronx), she sounds simply earnest. Earnest enough to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. Earnest enough to have recorded a CD that is, despite some annoying overindulgences, quite confident and even beautiful.
Regina Spektor plays the piano and somehow, that always seems to involve a bit of the melodrama, at least in popular music. On Soviet Kitsch, that melodrama is leveled out to draw the listener in first. "Poor Little Rich Boy" compels with its sparse beginning, jaunting piano and drum stick hitting wood, this suddenly shifting as a multitude of words are crammed into two measures, the artist playing a caffeinated slam poet. This is confounding, but only for a moment, as the song moves back into the original timing as quickly as it left it. The song ends as Ms. Spektor, sounding increasingly frustrated, sings, "You're so young / You're so goddamn young" over and over. "Carbon Monoxide" is similar in that the piano melody is slow and charming, while the lyrics include the lines "If I don't got my socks on right / They slide right off of my feet", continuing with "As I walkawalkawalkawalkawalk" ("walk" being repeated seemingly countless times). The effect of the quirky songwriting style (vocals and words only; the music itself is always classy) is numbing at first. The first few plays require a bit of patience, but this is a unique new talent. Like listening to PJ Harvey or Shannon Wright, having patience pays off. At first, you may frown at the lack of subtlety, but then the songs are in your head and you can't get them out. You start to appreciate all the messy idealism of them. In that sense, "Carbon Monoxide" goes on, the instruments breaking down for Regina Spektor to begin crooning, "C'mon, daddy". The result is devastating.
That is not to say that all of these tracks need to be overcome by the listener. Most of the songs on Soviet Kitsch are compelling from first listen. "Ode to Divorce" is a great dive into the ambiguity of relationships. "Somedays" could be a collaboration between Carole King and Joni Mitchell. "Us", the best song on the record, sounds like a New England autumn, biking down a trail littered with brightly-colored leaves. It could be taken from a soundtrack to a slow-moving film with exceptional dialogue, such as Breaking Away or Ordinary People. It sounds like life.
Soviet Kitsch is not for every mood, but neither are a lot of great records. It has terrible cover art and a title that suggests that the artist is also not taking herself as seriously as she should. Hopefully, that will come in time. There may not be a theme, nor a cohesive plan at all other than to play whatever has come to mind, but with repeated listens this simply does not matter. For now, we have a record of seriously good songs. And that is where some earnestness should pay off for the listener.