Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats

Regina Spektor all smiles

Regina Spektor's view from the cheap seats

What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is the sixth full-length album from Soviet-born, American-bred pop songwriter Regina Spektor. It is her fourth release for Sire Records, and her sound is right in step with the rest of her enviable catalog. Produced by Mike Elizondo (who helmed the production for the like-minded Fiona Apple album Extraordinary Machine), What We Saw From the Cheap Seats should delight avid Spektor fans who have adored every release from Soviet Kitsch to Far.

Regina Spektor is a brilliant baroque pop melody writer with superb showtune flourishes. Her instrumental chops and stunning voice are her greatest assets, while her stylistic flourishes tend to be either the unique gifts that catapult her songs into transcendental glory or twist them in the direction of incoherence or pomposity, depending on the audience’s investment. That composition is the very reason why adventurous listeners hold her in the highest esteem, but those with more mainstream tastes are unsettled as to whether her songs are appealing or frustrating. There can be little doubt as to whether a mainstream audience can wrap its arms around a mostly perfect pop song like “Small Town Moon” with lyrics steeped in homesick concerns (“How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?”), but a fraction may get distracted by preciousness when she sings “baby” more than a dozen times in a rapid-fire string.

The eccentric curlicues are the rich character of Regina Spektor’s brand of pop, and they are what make or break her to fans who haven’t committed to being diehards. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is drenched in such moments. The freewheeling “Oh Marcello” dazzles when Spektor directly lifts The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and fashions it into the chorus with kitschy, piano-driven line, but it’s arguably undermined by her beatbox bridge. On “All the Rowboats,” Spektor attempts to recreate a drumbeat, she takes a stab at a lip trumpet coda on “The Party,” and she muddies the otherwise impossibly beautiful “Open” with a series of goth purge grunts. Then, there is the occasionally odd lyrical choice such as when she drops the lines “Shake it, shake it baby. Shake your ass out in the street…Shake what your mama gave you.” in the snarling protest “Ballad of a Politician.”

In truth, the successful choices on What We Saw From the Cheap Seats far outweigh the detours. “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Mas Quitte Pas)” is a fun-loving skip down the city street with an odd pop bounce that finds Spektor belting out “I love Paris in the rain.” over and over again amid a calypso and horn groove.

“Firewood” is perhaps the most astonishing example of all of Regina Spektor’s seemingly limitless gifts coming together. She showcases her classical training, music conservatory background, risky left turns and poetic writing with dexterity. She sings, “The piano is not firewood yet. The heart beats in three just like a waltz.” over a solitary, minor key piano, and then stops you in your tracks with ingenious misdirection with the line, “Everyone knows you’re going to…(pause) live, so you might as well try.” You’re hanging on to ever word before a jaunty tempo boost and an improvisational solo that seems like an oddly placed coda come in around the four minute mark. Then, the minor key swings back around, and the song closes with the devastating insight, “There’s still no cure for crying.”

If you’ve been following Regina Spektor for the better part of a decade, you already have a good idea what you’re going to get with What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (and you’ve probably been counting down the days towards its release in the three years since Far). If, however, you’re someone inexperienced with or not yet sold upon Regina Spektor, the album is an investment worth a few dedicated listens. After that, it’s in your court whether you are a Regina diehard or an occasionally frustrated, often awestruck appreciator.


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