Thursday, May 31, 2012
Regina Spektor - What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (2012)
Long before ARMS or even Sondre Lerche there was Regina Spektor. My regular go-to gal and pinnacle of songwriting excellence and keeper of the eternal flame of my oppressive fandom. My experiences with Regina Spektor are decidedly long and storied and undoubtedly one-sided: A weekend trip to visit a recently displaced friend when I was in my early high school days was when I was introduced and while originally thinking her silly and insane, I found that I had grown to like and respect her. Her songs were smart but not stuffily so and the more I listened the more I found I'd learn. The meanings were subtle but the narratives were engaging and entertaining, and her talent undeniable.
My love of Spektor's music soon grew to eclipse that of her current output and so I took to the web and discovered a treasure trove of live recordings of songs that she's yet to commit to tape. Recorded by fans at live shows spanning her entire career thus far, the collection was impressive; about 170 different songs if memory serves. I had joined message boards and even regularly visited a Livejournal group (despite not actually operating a Livejournal) just for the latest scoop on her and information about where I might obtain more recordings.
Despite not seeing a single live show of hers (due to being a high school student with absolutely no disposable income), I felt like I could personally vouch for the impressiveness of them because of the recordings. Her song "Making Records" seemed to all but agree with this as she seems to lament committing her voice to tape noting the machines ability to bring her vocals to a level of perfection she cannot humanely recall. In fact, my love of her was so strong that sensing the obvious bias one of my blog's first major tenants was that I was not allowed to blog about her.
And I remember exactly when the fires of my love were snuffed out: the release of 2009's Far. The album wasn't terrible, not by a long shot but my love of ska/punk music as well as my own distaste with what other kids around me were listening to had distilled in me a distrust of major labels - a distrust which heretofore had never been directed at Spektor despite her place on a Warner Records subsidiary.
"Laughing With" took all of the mystery out of her songwriting making it quite clear what she was singing about, not allowing me to discover for myself the serious tone of it. But even that was fine. The act of severe betrayal happened in the form of much beloved "Folding Chair" - a simple little love song that was quintessentially silly Regina but still serious, it was when the overproduced instrumentation and overproccessed vocals kicked in that I felt my fandom deflate, a suspicious shield of distrust erected in its place. I could never completely dislike her because quite frankly, the album was still packed with more than enough good songs and her back catalog still had the same effects on me. But I knew from that day on, I'd be dubious of any of her future releases.
When Regina Spektor announced What We Saw From the Cheap Seats earlier this year, I had mixed feelings. I remembered the sting of Far's overproduction and death of Spektor's simplicity but I was still curious and filled with hope. First single "All the Rowboats" though relying on production techniques did so inoffensively and my hope was renewed though with a heavy layer of mistrust. The first sign of a misstep would see me bolting never to return. Or so I thought: With the release of second single "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)" there's synthesized piano and drums which I wasn't quite fond of and yet, I stuck around and I'm certainly glad I did.
Opener "Small Time Moon" proves like "All the Rowboats" that the studio perks that are afforded to Spektor aren't always bad thing, giving the track a bouncy, joyful flare that might not have come off before. "Oh, Marcello" sees the return of a quirkier, much missed Spektor as she fully adopts the character of a Italian woman, affect included, to spin a plot that could very well be out of Shakespeare or his contemporaries which she combines with a stolen set of lyrics from The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" to create a bit of a quizzical anachronism. After "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas", Spektor finds a pretty spot on balance between her own talents (vocal percussion abounds) and those of the studio so that you don't have the same jarring experience ever again. You even get a very obvious peek to her likes and influences with the soulful "How" which recalls Billie Holiday plainly and simply without merely sounding reductive.
My problem with What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is exclusively from a place of privilege. I had heard many of the songs before a multitude of times before I suppose I was meant to. While Spektor has supported the recording of her songs and the sharing of her songs (in most cases, if they aren't detrimental to another person's vision), I essentially have undue knowledge I shouldn't have. Perhaps if I hadn't heard the live version of "Folding Chair", I wouldn't have been so offended by the album version or so distrustful of the computer-friendly "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (I will call it by its originally name forever), my ears might have still pricked up (not in a good way) when I heard both of these songs but who's to say. And so my feelings while not to be totally disregarded aren't exactly the status quo. Even at her most overtly poppy, Spektor is at her most endearing. They may not give her the proper forum to display her impressive plethora of talents but they're hard to fault.
What We Saw from the Cheap Seats seems to be the foil to Far, featuring Regina Spektor at her most fun, thoroughly enjoying herself. Not that there's not fun songs on Far, but where songs like "Two Birds" and "Dance Anthem of the 80s" seemed more cute than anything, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats pulses with smile-inducing splendor even at its most serious ("The Ballad of the Politician", "Open"). It's fitting that Spektor returned to fan recordings to select songs for this album because they allow her a certain freedom she doesn't really take full reign of in her more recent songs. Rediscovery imbues in her a sense of wonder and playfulness. The album's strongest tracks are in fact, the oldest "The Party" and "Jessica" don't really hold a candle to "Open" or "Patron Saint" and yet, the album's not a competition. Even the weaker tracks sparkle with Spektor's radiant charm.