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Regina Spektor Goes “Far”

by Rudy Klapper 25 June 2009 169 views No Comment E-mail Rudy Klapper

Regina Spektor - Far
Sire Records 2009
Rating: 7/10


For someone so associated with the New York anti-folk scene, Russian-American singer-songwriter Regina Spektor sure knows her way around a pop tune or thirteen. After 2006’s commercial smash (well, by indie standards) Begin To Hope, it should come as no surprise that this latest, the eagerly awaited Far, pulls no punches. From the opening staccato chords and syncopated hi-hat of opener “Calculation,” Spektor sets up a piano shop in one’s head and relentlessly pounds the ivories to pop perfection. Indeed, the first half of the album poses a question many longtime Spektor fans are wondering after this album first began streaming: has their beloved, endlessly quirky Regina sold out after all?

One would expect Spektor to be able to produce such hook-filled tunes effortlessly after hearing “Fidelity” everywhere a few years ago, but evidently she isn’t taking any chances, enlisting a total of four producers to mastermind her third release. Four producers, of course, who you might have heard of: Mike Elizondo, Jacknife Lee, David Kahne, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne. Between them they’ve produced such artists as Kelly Clarkson, U2, Eminem, and that other piano vixen, Fiona Apple, and it’s not exactly hard to see what direction Spektor is going in from the get-go. The fairly nonsensical but no less accessible “Eet” gets by on its addictive chorus, while the gorgeous “Blue Lips” features Spanish-flavored production underscoring Spektor’s typically expressive vocals (”blue, the color of our planet from far, far away / blue, the most human color”).

Note-perfect, exquisitely-produced, and with the kind of tongue-in-cheek lyrics Spektor has so excelled at (”I’ve got a perfect body, but sometimes I forget / I’ve got a perfect body, ‘cause my eyelashes catch my sweat”), “Folding Chair” is, for all its catchy-ness, sometimes unbearably cute. It’s a problem Spektor struggles with throughout the album, a division between her desire to appeal to everyone and the necessary separation with the old Spektor that that entails. And on songs like the clattering, over-produced “Machine,” which features some choice lyrics about a dystopian future yet also is burdened with the most grating chorus on record, Spektor seems to be trying too hard to sound radically different, as if overcompensating for the major harmony radiance of “Folding Chair.”

Then again, Spektor makes a damn fine pop song, no matter who’s behind the boards. And after the cloying, no-atheist-in-a-foxhole message of first single “Laughing With,” which falls flat on its contrived spiritualism, the album really starts to piece together the best parts of Spektor’s talented lyricism and penchant for hooks. The majestic, nearly hymnal “Human of the Year” is the clear centerpiece here, starting as a tepid piano ballad before ascending into a ringing chorus and a bridge where Spektor’s voice soars more grandly than ever.

While a song like “Two Birds” might be knocked for being too lyrically simple, or a generation satire like “Dance Anthem of the 80s” considered too silly, both marry the best of Spektor’s skills: her tenacious pursuit of a good melody and even more dogged affinity for irreverent humor and insightful observations. Just check out the “solo!” breakdown in the latter and try not to smile.

The album ends on perhaps its best streak, beginning with the understated “Wallet,” continuing through the uplifting “One More Time with Feeling,” and ending on the rather anti-climactic “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Only Spektor could make a song about finding a stranger’s lost wallet and returning it into a two-minute-long heartbreaker, or turn a song about hospitals into the anthem of the album.

But it’s truly “Man of a Thousand Faces” that takes the cake, a smoky, understated ballad that slow burns its way through the tale of a man by himself but never explodes into the climax it promises. Instead, it realizes the true potential of Spektor’s talents, most notably her ability to make a song beautiful no matter what production surrounds her. When Spektor raises above the tinkling piano and echoing percussion to proclaim “good is better than perfect / scrub till your fingers are bleeding” before falling back to intone “and I’m crying for things / I tell others to do without crying,” everything comes together without a hitch.

For all of Spektor’s trademark peculiar vocal affectations and oft-ridiculous lyrics, there’s her distinctive piano style, her versatile voice, and, of course, her knowledge of how to make a song that sticks. Far is not a perfect album, and it will no doubt leave many fans disgruntled, but it can’t be said that Regina is not a songstress of the highest order. Even when surrounded by big names that threaten to overwhelm her voice more than they embrace it, her ability to distinguish herself cements her as one of her generation’s most prominent artists.

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