18 June 2006

Hope's Begun

Normally, when I buy a new album, I play it somewhere that I can listen to it – from beginning to end, with as little interruption as possible, and as quickly as I can after purchase. Such devotion has its rewards: I tend to learn the music rapidly, while still leaving plenty of opportunity to discover subtleties and nuances over time. With regina spektor’s new album begin to hope [note: the lowercase letters seem to be Ms. spektor’s preferred form], I had to choose between listening immediately, in my office, or deferring the pleasure until hours later, at home. I chose the former. The unintended consequence is that I felt initially as though I wound up buying two terrific – but completely different – discs of music.


The second portion, which I discovered later and in greater quietude, centers on the song “Lady,” the 11th track. How can the second part of the album center on its penultimate track? A good question, but believe me, it works; such are the strengths of the last two songs. “Lady” is what one expects and hopes and craves from a singer-songwriter like spektor: it is stunning, its beauty enhanced by its slight awkwardness, by the fact that the listener has to be engaged by the song: by its lyrics, by its initial, spare piano, spektor’s yearning voice, and by the song’s overall effect. This is not bubblegum music; you have to want to listen, to want it to work.

The references in “Lady” to a certain famous blues singer are clear, yet framed well beyond the ordinary honorifics or that typical sense of loss, as in these two bits of the verse:

She makes them feel things
She says I can sing this song so blue that you will cry
In spite of you


And I have walked these streets so long
There ain’t nothing right
There ain’t nothing wrong
But the little wet tears on my baby’s shoulder

That “little wet tears on my baby’s shoulder” line is repeated a number of times, and to great effect, with the saxophone underscoring it in the distance and then growing, to close out the last 60 seconds or so in a duet with spektor’s piano. The album then moves cleanly to more piano-and-voice, for track 12, “Summer In The City,” which magically carries the mood spektor has already set. And then it’s done: two tracks and a little more than eight minutes of bliss wrap things up.


In my office, what I thought I heard was something else. Anyone familiar with spektor’s earlier album, Soviet Kitsch, will think they “get” the new spektor with begin to hope’s first two tracks, “Fidelity” and “Better.” Where Soviet Kitsch established spektor’s effective combination of piano and sprightly-squeaky staccato singing, “Fidelity” and “Better” pick up those pieces and throw in ... well, not exactly a band, but more electrified and amped-up instruments than one might expect: drums, a guitar, and a bass, along with what sounds like some electronic drums and keyboard effects. For the first 45 seconds, “Fidelity” sounds vaguely pop-like, until spektor’s staccato starts on the refrain “And it breaks my heart”: she stretches the word “heart” out for several beats, for many seconds. There’s no Britney in there, that’s for sure.

Similarly, in “Better,” spektor moves vibrantly ahead with a song that starts with a good thirty seconds of a full “rock” music sound before her voice comes in. Here too, she breaks up and confronts our expectations, moving in and out of an aching chorus verse and then at about a minute sticking in an almost-spoken verse over a slightly more quiet set of instruments, before picking up the rush again... and then getting quiet towards the end, to allow her voice to once again emphasize the chorus.

But any assumptions that the listener might want to make about this “new” regina spektor are shattered by track three, “Samson,” which has much more of her simple piano and defining voice, conveying her movingly-absurd lyrics about love and white bread. spektor’s lyrics are part of her charm; she tells stories that take a little time to decode, an intriguing mixture of absurdity and precision. And so it goes, weaving back and forth – both from song to song and within each composition, for 12 delightful tracks. And so it should go: this album is alive, energetic, and engaged, and that’s how it makes the listener feel. This is a terrific next step for spektor, and one that should help her win the wider audience she deserves.


The existing regina spektor fan, or the adventurous newcomer, might want to purchase the alternative version of begin to hope, a 2-cd package that contains an additional five tracks, studio versions of songs that were previously recorded live. The few extra dollars are worth it just for “Baobabs” and “Düsseldorf.”


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