A brief, inarguable list of the best things from or tangentially related to Russia:
4. Vodka tonics
2. Zangief from Street Fighter
1. Regina Spektor
Born in Russia and transplanted to New York as a kid, Miss Spektor is a force of nature. There is no point in denying this. I’ve been hooked since she was just a VH1 Artist You Oughta Know; I played “Fidelity” and “Us” on loop in the ice cream shop I worked at in college; at 18, I listened to “Samson” in the car late at night, engrossed. How do you draw up a comparison to describe her? She’s virtuosic on the piano, her voice glides effortlessly from “sweet pixie” to “sonic equivalent of Ivan Drago” to “onomatopoeia,” and her lyrics contain breathtaking storytelling. In live shows, she often uses a wooden chair as a drum. She looks like she could be related to Kristen Schaal. She doesn’t have anything to prove to you, or anyone else.
Her singular musical identity is a monolithic presence on What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, the most Spektory album in her discography so far. Soviet Kitsch was Regina at her quirkiest, Begin To Hope was Regina at her most flexible, and Far was Regina at her most radio-friendly. When listening to Cheap Seats, it’s clear that this is the Regina that she herself wants to show us.
Which is to say, this album sounds more Russian than a game of Tetris.
From the get-go, “Small Town Moon” seems like a statement of purpose. Spektor sings, “How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?” and it’s tempting to read a little personal cry of independence into that. But, as with all of Spektor’s songs and all good folklore, it’s difficult to tell where the diary ends and the yarn-spinning begins. It’s why, on “Oh Marcello,” Spektor’s invocation of The Animals is even more intriguing: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
In an album that trades sunshine for a subdued chill, “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” is a bloom in the snow. Longtime listeners may remember the original, stripped down, piano-only version on Spektor’s Songs. The version on Cheap Seats is drenched in orchestral flourishes, including everything from a memorable Dixie-style brass interlude to a Casio keyboard beat. The closest thing on this album to a “cute” Regina song, it’s an ode to Paris and New York and kooky non sequiturs. Don’t listen to it if you’re morally opposed to happiness.
It doesn’t take long for Spektor to get back to the borscht-and-potatoes heart of the album. “Firewood” is a sweetly sad song touching on life and death, somewhat reminiscent of Soviet Kitsch’s “Chemo Limo.” But the darkest track is “All the Rowboats.” If it isn’t the theme song for the KGB, it should be. A song rich in atmosphere, this spooky and sinister song turns something as simple as a museum into a terrifying nightmare realm. The track opens an odd, unsettling Euro-techno riff and electronic drum crashes. Spektor sings of masterpieces and treasures as doomed prisoners (“It’s their own fault for being timeless”). It’s her take on string instruments that will haunt you, though: “God, I pity the violins/In glass coffins, they keep coughing/They’ve forgotten how to sing.”
“Jessica” takes Cheap Seats to a softer, folksier place. It’s guitar-driven, which is odd, because one would assume Regina Spektor was a half-human-half-Steinway cyborg. But here we are. The deluxe edition’s “Call Them Brothers,” a charming duet with Only Son, proves that Regina the Non-Comformist is adept at fusing her talents with collaborators (listen to her contribution on Ben Folds’ “You Don’t Know Me All” if you’re still skeptical); its harmonies are gorgeous. But if tastes of the Kremlin are more your thing, a couple of Russian cover songs round the album out. I can’t understand them, but they sure sound good.
Cheap Seats feels like a true composition, with carefully articulated levels, artfully designed facets. It is a luxurious album from the first lady of eclecticism.
(1) “Small Town Moon”
(2) “Oh Marcello”
(3) “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”
(7) “All the Rowboats”
(12) “Call Them Brothers”