Thursday, August 03, 2006

Regina Spektor -- Begin to Hope

Well, OK then.... Courtesy of a contact that I've made at Cornerstone [Promotion], I feel like I'm giving myself the chance to truly get back into writing again. Not that I haven't been writing at all in the recent past (screenplay, Genesis commentary, poems, random thoughts, etc), but I've always had this dream of either being a free-lance journalist or being an on-staff writer for magazines (whether online or in print). Thus, I present to you the first review of (hopefully) many more records, books, and other assorted forms of media. I'm considering creating a new blog through which I will pursue this venture, but time will tell.

So please read and comment. Or just enjoy....

Regina Spektor
Begin to Hope
Sire: 2006
Rating: 7.1

I remember the story breaking about 2 or 3 years ago. For some reason, MTV or VH1 (I can’t recall which it might have been) decided to take a bit of time from their hectic and persistent attempts to deaden the senses of the coveted 18-25 demographic with images of everything except music to actually talk about music. I was quite surprised actually – here were programmers making the conscious choice to make their viewers aware of a current development in where music was heading. There was no mention of Ashton Kutcher, Bam Margera, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, or any other typical pop-cultural schlock.

The voice-over narrator related a lovely tale; a tale filled with a great many touching tidbits from this artist’s life and times. As an unusual yet delightful voice leaked out of my television’s speakers, I heard about the life of a talented Jewish-Russian girl growing up on the streets of New York City after her family was able to emigrate from the U.S.S.R. and how she was raised on the Western music her father was able to smuggle into Communist Russia. I took all of this in – the biographical information, the strains of piano-led, jazz-inspired folk music, and a quirky voice that made you want to listen to where you’d be taken next – and thought to myself, “Well, if I actually had any say in prepping the format of a truly good pop station, I’d have to make sure and play some of this woman’s music.”

So, here we are today listening to Ms. Spektor’s newest album, the second she’s recorded on Sire Records after releasing two independently at shows all throughout NYC’s East Village. It’s a collection of compelling and original songs that does its best to bust genres and defy categorization. One can easily identify the fact that she does have talent and that those talents have been honed through playing clubs for the past 5 years and touring widely for the past 3. To declare that she just another girl-on-a-piano/Norah Jones-Vanessa Carlton clone is to display your musical ignorance.

She sings with passion, yet tempers that passion with a healthy sense of humor and chutzpah, never quite taking herself too seriously. You can tell that she’s quite versed in classical piano & jazz theory, but she enjoys crafting a great pop song. Regina knows when to step up and deliver a full complement of instruments on a selection, as evidenced by the standout track “Better”. Nevertheless, she is quite aware that the beautiful minimalism of the voice-and-piano-only mix on songs like “Samson” and “Field Below” displays her abilities to their fullest extent. It’s hard not enjoying the intelligent lyrics, the varied creative takes on traditional jazz and folk music, and the general sense that she’s having a great time making her music.

And it all succeeds – to a certain extent. There are times when her seemingly innocent worldview wears a bit thin and becomes not quite believable. I’m not saying that the naïveté is forced or some false persona that she and her producer (David Kahne, who has also produced Paul McCartney, The Bangles, & Sugar Ray) are forcing upon an unsuspecting listener. It’s more that she sings, plays, and writes with ever-maturing skill set, yet still hopes to convince us all that she’s just arrived off the boat from Eastern Europe and doesn’t quite know how to relate to Americans and western culture. On songs like “Hotel Song” and “That Time,” she comes off as a bit too kitschy for my tastes, especially in how she begins tweaking her vocal stylings to appear unpracticed and spontaneous. It catches your ear the first or second time, but it can get annoying by the third and fourth – kinda like dealing with a younger sibling who knows just how to get under your skin and does it over and over again.

Please don’t think that I’m seeking for ways to denigrate this rather good pop album. Begin To Hope is a fun listen-to that does a great job with straying outside the box in just the right ways, while maintaining a solid song structure. There are strains of Fiona Apple, Cat Power, and even Tom Waits (circa Alice) throughout this record and enough good songs to rouse in the listener a sense that Ms. Spektor has more to offer us all in the future. However, to me, it just seems a bit too slickly produced and studio-stale on too many occasions. Sire should encourage her to find an old upright piano in a basement somewhere, find some great friends, and sit around recording her music, allowing Regina to have all the time she wants to mix up all the fun-and-seriousness her heart desires. I’d both buy that album and go see that tour – Regina Spektor: Live in Your Basement!


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