Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Mwah Mwahh Mwah Mwahh Muhhh

You will never be her boo.

Regina Spektor - Begin To Hope (Sire)

In 2004, I jumped to download new-songstress-on-the-NYC-block Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch once the Nellie McKay comparisons rolled in, nevermind that "Strokes' favorite singer" garbage, and dozed off pretty quickly to a record I felt was way more Tidal than When The Pawn (that means it sucked). Replaying, it's hardly the worst thing I've ever heard, especially from a singer-songwriter whose weapon of choice is piano, but it's certainly not as good as Begin To Hope, the reason I replayed it at all. Now that McKay's jumped the shark only two albums in (what do you expect from even an intelligent auteur whose debut is a double?) with Pretty Little Head, which her label rightfully decided mostly unfit for human ears, and Fiona Apple remains consistently great but mostly humorless still, it's the perfect time for this very quirky minor artist to make her move. So she did.

Where Kitsch bores so hard so instantly its arid veneer obscures its vastly major peak, "Your Honor," a hilarious thrash-punk anamoly about a fight that takes up a whole 2:10 of the record, Hope starts with a 1-2-3-4-x-6 sequence so perfect it could win a bowling tournament. For one thing, it carves Spektor's identity as the poppy one, with McKay the too-good-for-music satirist now turning out Broadway cred, and Apple as the middle-class NYC single gal confessioneer. The one-two "Fidelity" and "Better" are easily her two sweetest and simplest melodies, set to perfectly catchy minimalist backdrops, a plinking 4/4 pizzicato for "Fidelity," the should-be single, and straight three-chord rock for "Better," the is-the-single. My girlfriend thinks her vocal quirks would be too much for one of our friends who's big into Postal Service-Old 97's power-pop, but I don't see why radio's more likely to eat up the quirky-sung "will you feel bettow/bettow/better?" any more than the quirkier-sung "It breaks my ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-heaaaaart." For "Samson," she slips back into piano-love-confession wallpaper, only sung so sweetly it brings to mind Liz Phair's excellent "Dance of the Seven Veils" rather than something Fiona Apple threw at radio back when she was a concert-destructing psycho. "On The Radio" comfortably marches back to the thumping 4/4 of "Fidelity" and on-the-beat plinking pizzicato, and with an allowance to skip the truly boring "Field Below," the record peaks one last time on "Hotel Song," a sexy dance number sung as if she were Ronnie Spektor instead, with girl-group style cooing about owls and whales and bags of cocaine pieced together so smoothly the Pipettes would pull her hair out for it. So then this fluke sequence of great chick-singerness is supposed to sink back to all those singer-songwriter traps that mar say, Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds' records, right? Not so fast.

Then she gets experimental on Sire's ass, and if "Apres Moi" isn't a deliciously bratty punkfest like "Your Honor," well, "Your Honor" ain't a mini-opera partly sung in Russian either. "Apres Moi" can go toe to toe with anything on Extraordinary Machine, too, both qualitywise and "difficulty"-wise. She definitely saves the weird shit for last, and my name is Kimya if it's not as captivating as the "pop" stuff. "20 Years of Snow" mocks her own operatic turns by sneaking a "stare at your booooooooooobs" into her own series of overwrought "oooooooooooo"'s over propulsive and strange chord patterns in a weird time signature. Or maybe she's mocking Fiona? "Snow" is certainly the most Machine-like track here out of several runners. The album's token rocker this time is a medium-fast single-string raveup called "That Time" where she lists a bunch of adorable "times" she did only one thing (ate tangerines, smoked Marlboros, read Shakespeare) with a kind of dark twist at the end where she ODs, twice. I say "kind of" because Spektor's quirky delivery is hard to draw blood from on the sincerity front, even when she whispers the anti-punchline. Also because the serious moments never last long enough to ruin the funny ones, a wise decision, even though the easiest song on the record to take seriously follows. "Edit" builds an entire song around a diss to ex-boyfriend Julian Casablancas ("you can write but you can't edit"), which cuts extra harsh since First Impressions Of Earth flounders in its too-long second half. Begin To Hope doesn't. A singer-songwriter with no traps to fall into even on her major label (even the limited-edition bonus disc of Hope scores with the vomit-themed "Uh-merica"), the title Begin To Hope feels like an invitation to get into her canon now that it's finally happening. She seems content in her ambitions, so I don't have much reason to fear Spektor's next album will be another Pretty Little Head, but here's hoping. A-


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