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Album Review: Regina Spektor - What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

Regina Spektor has always tottered upon a particularly flimsy balance beam, typically falling to the side of irresistible eccentricity but occasionally plummeting into an exhausting pit of whimsical excess that lies on the other. From her debut effort "11:11" that shook up the East Village anti-folk scene and crowned her Queen of the Adorkables, to her transition into more lush, extravagant territory with 2009's "Far", "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats" is a cocktail of heartbreaking sincerity, puerile outbursts and playful observation that toys with a distinctly darker tone whilst retaining all the technical quirks that make Regina Spektor so unique.

Although she is something of a chameleon when it comes to style, Spektor has never forgotten her two biggest assets - her unmatched ability to write piano-based pop songs with a classical twist and, more importantly, her voice. Expressive, uninhibited and unmistakable, Spektor's vocals add a level of loveable personality and tangible passion to everything she's ever written, enabling her to touch upon difficult or fatalistic topics with a goofy smile, glassy eyes, or a combination of both to the same emotional end. Even some of her most uplifting hits like 'Fidelity' and 'On The Radio' carry a sore strain of melancholy, and this is exactly what we are greeted with on the opening track of her sixth studio album as she flutters the lyric: "How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me? Woo!"

With some songs having been in the works for years (the re-hashed 'Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)', for example), "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats" is a slow-paced album, playing through like a leisurely walk - without destination - during which Spektor wistfully muses on the passing of time: "Today we're younger than we're ever gonna be" ('Small Town Moon')/ "You'll take the clock off the wall, and wish that it was lying" ('Firewood'). 'Oh Marcello' and synth-punctured single 'All The Rowboats' add a more uplifting pace, but still retain a sinister vibe that keeps within the framework of the album as a whole.

On earlier albums, Regina Spektor has shone most brightly when taking risks - "Begin To Hope"'s 'Hotel Song' or "Soviet Kitsch"'s 'Us', for example - but in the case of "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats" and it's predecessor "Far", her finest moments come when things are kept simple. The sentimental 'How', minimal acoustic closer 'Jessica' and 'Firewood' - a piano ballad trapped somewhere between Tom Waits circa 'Closing Time' and the Toy Story soundtrack - all showcase flawless songwriting, rich production and emotionally heavy vocals highlighted by minimal arrangements that hit every raw nerve. Unfortunately, for every gorgeous moment there is another where Spektor choses to channel Portlandia's Lisa Eversman by having her own "put a bird on it" moment, whether it's pretending to be a trumpet, putting on a fake Italian accent, or instructing a politician to "Shake what your momma gave you" with a bafflingly straight face.

Still, for or all it's misdirected eccentricity, "What We Saw From The Cheap Seats" is littered with tender moments and earworm melodies that come out on top. It isn't necessarily the best album to win over new listeners (although most will have made up their minds about whether they can stomach Spektor's musical idiosyncrasies or not, by now), but it contains enough flashes of genius to keep hopes high for future releases.

"What We Saw From The Cheap Seats" is out now on Sire Records.


Emma Garland

Alter The Press!