- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Regina Spektor

Far

Sire

Preciousness - or a hilarious take on preciousness - is Regina Spektor’s stock in trade. As a performer, she’s disarmingly ingratiating and humble in the face of applause.

Her voice, at times, can come across as unbearably childlike. Her piano playing - rumbling octaves, arpeggios, coy trills - has the sound of a gifted student coasting effortlessly through an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley. She curtseys to audiences. And she’s one of those contemporary artists who doubles as a litmus test on listeners. Adoring fans buy into her total sincerity, her literary allusions, her anime eyes and fluttering lashes.

If you dislike Miss Spektor, it may be for many of these same reasons.

Miss Spektor’s second album recorded for a major label, Sire, finds the singer-songwriter in the hands of four big-time record producers - a big shift for a performer who once hustled cafe gigs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and recorded and released her first albums under her own label. A confident and distinctive player, Miss Spektor did not run the risk of losing her signature sound to overweening studio jockeys. Yet it’s also possible that Mike Elizondo (producer for Dr. Dre and Eminem), Jeff Lynne (ELO), Garrett “Jacknife” Lee (Bloc Party, REM) and David Kahne (New Order, the Strokes) saw in Miss Spektor’s voice and piano style a unique and distinctive instrument. Instead of toning down the cutesy renderings (adding “shhh” sounds to words that have none) and cutting back on the knowing, fairy tale whispers, they are ramped up and accentuated. Instead of tolerable tics, they become, to a great extent, the focus of the record.

Take “Laughing With,” a somber, spare piano dirge that outlines any number of circumstances in which people will call on God in all seriousness. Miss Spektor sings, “No one laughs at God in a hospital, no one laughs at God in a war.” The song seems to lament the phenomenon of divinity as the butt of jokes - although it’s unclear from the lyrics who is guilty of this sin. It seems uncharacteristically sanctimonious and leaden.

Click here to listen to “Laughing With”

“Two Birds” also contrasts the bass end of the piano with Miss Spektor’s sing-song vocals, but the addition of perky drum beat and tuba blasts whips the sound into a pleasing and seductive froth.

The track “Dance Anthem of the 80’s” seems like a bit of anti-folk parody. The opening piano line stutters like a hipster take on “Chopsticks,” while the melismatic vocals drag out words like “so” and “sweet” to impossible lengths. It’s silly and self-aware and backed by an irresistible beat - in a way that feels like Miss Spektor’s ideal mode.

She strikes the same balance on “One More Time With Feeling,” a Beatles-inspired tune that winds from a quiet opening to a triumphant, blaring chorus. Here, Miss Spektor opens up her voice to reveal not only its full power, but also its limitations - an approach that is more satisfying than the whispered asides and put-on baby talk.

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