Fiona Apple and Tori Amos began their music careers with major label deals, specifically in a time when majors were monolithic powerhouses, MTV still played videos and indie meant lo-fi. Not so for Regina Spektor, a Russian transplant to New York at the age of nine. She slugged it out in the New York anti-folk scene for years before catching the attention of Sire. Her songs were spare piano pieces with quirky bits of vocal phrasing, strange accents and an incredibly rich literary lyric base. And even with the jump to Sire, it’s nice to know that although some things might have changed, Spektor’s craft still retains those magical qualities, if slightly more polished.
Chances are, even if you don’t own any of Spektor’s albums (there are four), you’ve probably heard one of her songs before. Spektor can thank Moby for laying the groundwork for song recognition in the new era of digital music by selling every single song on his album, Play. Songs from Spektor’s latest album, Begin to Hope have now appeared on CSI: NY, Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars and Weeds. Sire even went as far as to make a ‘Sim-like’ atmosphere and ‘living room’ online in which to discover Spektor’s music. All of this strikes me as odd, not in terms of today’s music culture, but in juxtaposition to the near luddite format of Spektor’s raw and spare piano pop. Begin to Hope does add some studio flourish, but every note can be recreated in a live format, (save for maybe “Edit”).
A lot of reviewers this year have compared Spektor to the likes of Apple, Amos and Björk, and none are too far from the mark. With the first two, the piano based singing and songwriting is obvious. Her quirky vocal style points directly to the elfin Icelandic artist, but I find her a bit closer to Ani DiFranco, mainly due to a penchant for taking established musical clichés, turning them on their head, and doing so with an incredible intelligence and poetic background. Like a Thomas Pynchon novel or an episode of Lost, you can enjoy the material on several levels. There’s the apparent charm and pop flavor of each and every tune, especially “On the Radio,” “Fidelity” and “Après Moi.” Then there’s the footnote aspect to most of the tunes. Spektor makes reference to various aspects of history, literature and popular culture at every turn, from Ezra Pound and Boris Pasternak to the Beatles (in mentioning Doctor Robert and Uncle Albert in “Edit”). One of the finest songs on the album, and one well worth making the album a must have, is “Samson,” a stunning ballad about being Samson’s first love, before Delilah came on to the scene.
Begin to Hope is a great album to begin your love affair with Regina Spektor, especially if you are somewhat averse to recordings with more of a guerrilla feel to them. Once you’ve immersed yourself in her beautiful voice, haunting and intelligent lyrics and slightly off-kilter presentations, then you will be ready for her early masterful works such as 11:11, Soviet Kitsch, and one of my favorites, the compilation collection of odd bits of poetry and story songs, Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories.
Tori Amos- Under the Pink
Fiona Apple- Tidal
Ani DiFranco- Out of Range