Label: Sire Records
Begin to Hope was a beautiful moment for Regina Spektor. Casting aside a little of her penchant for clever literary hand-wringing, she laid much of her heart bare on the altar of old fashioned pop music longing. There were still large doses of New York literary intelligentsia in her writing and we should all be thankful for that, but the simple and poignant musings on human comfort found in “Fidelity,” “On the Radio,” “Better” and “Hotel Song” were less guarded and really lived up to the title of the album as the beginning of a more heartfelt universality to her work.
Far finds our heroine with stacks of sheet music by her piano that are more complex than the hum-along crossover appeal of its predecessor. While it doesn’t surpass the meticulous build of Begin to Hope’s strongest songs, it’s a worthy and progressive continuation of the same somber themes and ideas. Spektor can still make sadness soar and happiness weak at the knees, but there’s also decidedly less humor here than on her older songs. This is made all the more interesting because Spektor occupies a lyrical territory on the album that’s quite similar to her earliest recordings. Deep sea diving into spiritual and emotional dimensions opened up at the tendrils where love, music and human nature intertwine is still all in a day’s work for her. Far offers a newer and more downbeat perspective on the type of music that it’s safe to wager Spektor will always write successfully, a growth in self-reflection in lieu of an expansion of tricks and talents.
She has ability to spare anyhow. Spektor’s powerful sub-operatic voice and ability to transition from swelling heights to conversational secrecy, with a little bit of bad manners and disco in between, are once in a generation talents. It’s always tempting to give just about anything she does high marks for wielding something so vivid and beautiful, but as a student of jazz, rock and classical music she never coasts on her voice and actively challenges her comfort zones. “Blue Lips” puts the brakes on a high-speed American waltz to deliver a wilting Eastern European soliloquy. On the other end of the techno-vocal spectrum is the metallic clang of “Machine,” a Fritz Lang-worth future-past dirge that she gets behind with a convincing start and stop rigidity pasted over a healthy coat of scratchy black and white.
More important than sci-fi ruminations and vocal test patterns are her meta-songs that deconstruct the music seemingly within their own arrangement process. “Eet” finds her trying to explain the loss of family in terms of forgetting a favorite song but remembering all of its raw and instinctive feeling. After years of hearing it live, it feels really good to finally having a proper studio version of “Dance Anthems of the ’80s” to convey the high-heeled anxiety of public foreplay. “Folding Chair,” another longtime live staple, even has a piano riff that sounds suspiciously like Frankie Valli’s “Stay,” maybe the most cleverly concealed reference in Spektor’s jaunty beachfront fantasies. Sometimes the biggest playful elbow to the ribs of the musician’s considerable piano work is that she listens to the FM dial just like most everyone else.
Five producers worked on Far, most notably ELO’s Jeff Lynne, whose involvement is varied. He’s behind the switchboard for several of the album’s belated final tracks, some of which sound more like b-side castaways. A common trait in each of Spektor’s LPs is the feeling that too much has been left on; it’s unfortunate that Lynne now owns two of them with “Wallet” and “Genius Next Door,” Yet their partnership meets at an odd place on “Laughing With,” an intricate and pretty song that really shouldn’t work. Spektor insists after detailing a few really dreadful and tear-inducing situations that the supreme deity’s humor must be appreciated even after he’s thrown us all in the well with such abandon. Ironically, this might have been among the least humorous songs Spektor has written were it not for Lynne, whose engineering adds a breeze of cool air that keeps the song from falling into a very depressing place. He does as much to flesh out Spektor’s deeply held beliefs as her own voice.
At Spektor’s concerts and in most online outlets, it’s not uncommon to hear the squeal of “Regina!” usually followed by declarations of the type of love and desire that lie somewhere between an 18th sonnet and a letter to Santa Claus. Writing a review for one of her albums means putting these people aside while knowing that meeting up with them on the next tour is cast in stone. What I also know is that they’ll be listening to Far and swallowing all of its small sadness with almost childlike gulps. In some instances they can be better critics at their own turntables than a writer with four or five articles in the hopper. Regina (yes, we’ll go there too) even says so herself under the Influences section of her Myspace page. For the longest time it’s listed a plethora of names in the classical and pop music world as influences. while ending with a simple and fully felt intimation: “and possibly you.”
by Neal Fersko