The cliché about Regina Spektor is that she’s quirky, kind of a kook – the indie Phoebe from Friends. Like most clichés, it’s not completely unwarranted: she used her last album to imitate dolphin noises and once wrote a song called Reading Time with Pickle. It features the memorable line: “Ingredients: water, salt, cucumber, garlic and pickling spices.”
There’s fresh eccentricity on Spektor’s sixth album, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats. The Russian-born New Yorker sings much of Oh Marcello in a cod-Italian accent best suited to a pasta sauce advert. On a song called The Party, she compares her paramour to “a big parade through town”… and then imitates a trumpet. Elsewhere, she does her “impression” of the drums. To British ears, the result doesn’t sound like beat-boxing; it sounds like EastEnders ending on a cliffhanger.
At times, Spektor can be too cutesy – does she need to refer to New York City’s northernmost borough as “the Bronxy Bronx”? More often though, her little idiosyncrasies are charming. Of course, it helps that they nestle with some nifty melodies: Spektor likes a pop chorus almost as much as a vocal tic.
Besides, the quirkiness is really a corollary of Spektor’s lack of inhibition – as a performer, yes, but also as a songwriter. On the surface, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats is an album of piano-based pop songs, but thematically, it’s more varied. Cryptic confessionals knock shoulders with character sketches, the odd sort-of-love song and even some social commentary.
All the Rowboats takes aim at museums filled with masterpieces, calling them “public mausoleums”, while Ballad of a Politician is a crisp vignette about a networker. Thankfully, neither of these tracks contains that reference to “the Bronxy Bronx”.
Spektor is also capable of being very affecting. The album’s centrepiece is a break-up ballad called How that already sounds like a classic. At the song’s climax, Spektor needs just six words to capture all the stinging sadness of losing a lover’s intimacy: “You are a guest here now.”
Really, the truth about Regina Spektor is that quirky isn’t the half of it.