It’s curious to think of Regina Spektor as a “unique” artist: her bells and whistles are the stuff of odd noises; she uses odd parts of her body to play odd parts of the piano; she writes odd lyrics. And yet is she really that odd? Is Zooey Deschanel really that quirky because she sings around the house?
Perhaps the oddest thing about Spektor is how human (and humane) she is in a world of sleek “perfection.” It wouldn’t surprise me that we are so collectively unaware or afraid of our peculiarities that we would cast someone like Spektor as “that weird Russian girl.” Whether she’s giggling sweetly on The Colbert Report or stunning audiences with her animated arrangements, her peculiarity is a “selling feature.”
With What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, that weird Russian girl is at it again. This is her sixth studio album, but it is altogether new in the traditional sense. There are some older songs, from Spektor’s earlier days and from albums like Songs, and there are some newer songs.
Regardless of the where and when, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats features the same bare humanity and carbon-based storytelling we’ve come to expect from the Moscow-born anti-folk folk artist.
“Odd” in the way that slivers of humanity break through the smokescreen even when we don’t want them to, Spektor’s songs tell stories the way we tell stories. There are scraps, couplets that make little sense, ribbons of unruly sentiment, and soul-revealing summaries. Through it all, there’s a charming melodic sense that is enhanced – not eclipsed – by little touches of Mike Elizondo production.
What We Saw from the Cheap Seats opens with “Small Town Moon,” a beautiful piece of music made all the more incredible through a set of extraordinarily earnest lyrics. Spektor sings elegantly, starting and stopping where appropriate and repeating “Today we’re younger than we’re ever gonna be.”
“Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” has its origins from 2002’s Songs. Spektor has recorded a new version of the song for this record, jamming it with bounce and a reggae feel. Horns jump in at the right moment, creating a rich sing-along jam.
“How” moves somewhat in the other direction, swelling with big strings and sinking into a smallish piano-led ballad that simply aches. Spektor’s staccato-laced singing comes with a trace of soul-via-Moscow, fastened with the “weird” experience of missing someone and getting lost in the expression of the whole mess of wanting “memories to remain.”
Whether it’s the “Shake it, shake it, baby” of “Ballad of a Politician” or the stirring minimalism of “Jessica,” Spektor once again zeroes in on the uniqueness of our sometimes feeble mortality. Make no mistake, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats reveals a very special artist. But here, with the piano and the music, she is again at her most human (and humane).