Sonic chameleon Regina Spektor is hard to predict. The only things her songs tend to have in common are their eclecticism and their emphasis on her piano and her voice. The latter in particular is impossible to overlook. Spektor has one of those capital-v Voices that sticks out no matter what genre, what song, what compilation you put them in. Her style may change—sometimes smoky, here whispering, there deeply mournful, then cheeky and girlish—but Spektor’s vocals are always uniquely identifiable.
It’s a pleasure then that her sixth studio release, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, finds Spektor focusing on her assets while still playing with style and tone. Her albums feel more like collections of experiments than commercial releases, and yet she gets more and more popular with time. We’re lucky that she isn’t self-conscious in her music, because watching Spektor make the synth-boom mouth noise for her single “All the Rowboats” during her Letterman appearance is one of best things on YouTube.
By now, you’ve probably heard that song, with its watery intro, climactic build, and tensely linked lines. Spektor’s classical training is obvious in the way she holds notes over and transforms them into dramatic runs. The song is addictive and gorgeous—and unfortunately, it’s the best one on the album. It’s only unfortunate because it’s like when they put all the funny lines in the movie trailer—you hope for more of the same, but Cheap Seats hit its big moment in the previews.
Get over that initial disappointment and keep spinning the disc, because like all Spektor albums, this one packs in lots of hidden gems. “Open” features more mouth-music, a weird inhaling noise that gives way to long “open” notes (see what she did there), steady holds that showcase Spektor’s full sonic power. Sure, her music is weird sometimes, but she’s also incredibly talented, as that track displays succinctly in only four and a half minutes. “Oh Marcello” plays with the chorus from “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” so successfully that you’ll almost think Spektor wrote it herself.
There are plenty of pleasant moments on Cheap Seats, as well. “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” features warm horns over cheerfully childish chimes. It’s a reworking of an older song (from 2002’s Songs), and its effervescent chorus will worm its way into your ear semi-permanently. Opener “Small Town Moon” also sounds cheerful, but on closer listen its lyrics are more fatalist: “Today we’re younger than we’re ever gonna be/ whoo!”
That’s a minor example of a major Spektor trope: hitting difficult or awkward subjects with a light touch, singing cringe-worthy lyrics with a smile on her face or flat-out heartbreaking ones smack in the middle of a pop album (See “That Time” and “Two Birds” for an example of the former, “Ode to Divorce” and “Laughing With” for the latter). Spektor is an uninhibited and expressive writer, and she usually has at least one track that rubs a raw nerve, a too-true twinge that many writers might be afraid to strike. Closer “Party” takes this cue, hitting perhaps too close to home for some— “You’re like a big parade through town/you leave such a mess but you’re so fun”— before lightening up into mouth-trumpet noises. “Patron Saint” features peppy piano but tough-love lyrics: “She’ll break her own heart/and you know she’ll break your heart too/so darling let go of her hand/you’ll be to blame for playing this game.” This is pretty much as rough as it gets, though. We can handle awkward—listeners like a challenge, and she’s certainly given us plenty before—and it’s a disappointment not to receive more of those moments here.
Which is ultimately why, although Cheap Seats is a good record, it’s still a bit of a letdown. 2006’s Begin to Hope is a classic, packed with singles and risky weirdness, and it’s just as good today as it was then. Far, released in 2009, built on that platform, with several earworm tracks and just as many uncomfortable, exploratory artistic pieces. It would’ve been nice to see Spektor take more of a risk on Cheap Seats, to expand and really put herself out there.
Her safest moment is on ballad “How”, which could’ve been written and sung by anyone (sample lyric: “So baby/how can I forget your love?”). It sounds so much like so many other love songs, which is entirely antithetical to almost all the rest of Spektor’s catalog. One doesn’t listen to Regina Spektor for music one can hear anywhere—we listen to her for the unique features she brings to the table, for the awkward lyrics and truisms we don’t want to address and the mouth noises (especially those). What We Saw From The Cheap Seats could’ve been Spektor’s magnum opus, but the flashes of brilliance here are enough to keep us hoping for her next release.
Essential Tracks: “All the Rowboats”, “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”, and “Oh Marcello”