What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
I don’t know if female singer-songwriter is really a particular genre of music because female singer-songwriters can span many genres. Either way, I really have a thing for female singer-songwriters. A few, like Cat Power, Joanna Newsom, Fiona Apple, and Jenny Lewis have never done anything to substantially turn me off throughout their careers. Regina Spektor, on the other hand, released Far as her follow-up to the wonderful 2006’s Begin to Hope. Far managed to temper a lot of the anticipation I may have had for her fourth major release, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats.
The good news is that Cheap Seats restores much of the luster to Regina Spektor’s pre-Far career. The bad news is that I’m not sure how much people are paying attention to Spektor anymore, and whether or not Cheap Seats will register on people’s radar. I am here to try to convince you that Spektor should once again, at the very least, enter the conversation of important female singer-songwriters.
I think one of the problems with Far, besides the songs themselves, was that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. No matter how accomplished the producers (Jeff Lynne, Mike Elizondo, David Kahne), Far seems to have suffered from a lack of consistency, so it was nice to see Spektor work solely with Elizondo on Cheap Seats. Although probably known more for his production work in the hip-hop realm, Elizondo has also produced Apple’s Extraordinary Machine and several tracks for Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight, which obviously boded well for Cheap Seats.
Also boding well for Cheap Seats is the fact that it manages to be unpredictable without ever completely going off the rails. It comes close to going off the rails, like when Spektor uses the chorus from The Animals “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on “Oh Marcello”. Or when Spektor strings together a bunch of delightful nonsense and accents it with steel drum and trombone “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”. Not many artists can pull off lines like “And if you are a deity of any sort then please don’t go”, but Spektor exudes such self-confidence in her silliness that it is hard to resist.
Despite all her inherent quirkiness, Cheap Seats actually manages to hit heaviest on much more traditional piano ballads like “How”, “Small Town Moon”, and “Firewood”. In fact, “How” is the most honest thing Spektor has been able to write since she perfectly described the concept of romantic love on Begin to Hope’s “On the Radio”. Some might even find “How” too difficult to listen to because it is so intensely emotionally raw, and it may go down as one of the greatest break-up songs of our generation.
If you are into Regina Spektor more for her weirdness as opposed to beautiful piano ballads, then there should be just enough to placate that desire as well. The aforementioned “Don’t Leave Me” and also lead single “All the Rowboats” are more in line Regina Spektor the barrier-breaker. Just don’t expect quite as much frenetic vocal behavior as Far, or even Begin to Hope. Spektor has gained some self-awareness it seems, and was able to limit her weirdness to moments that actually aid her music most of the time.
For all that is great about Cheap Seats, it does run out of steam a little near the end of the album, beginning with forced and awful “Ballad of a Politician”. For all of Spektor’s ability to beautifully write about love, her ability to be a socially conscious musician falls very flat. Beyond that, “Open” is the other black eye on an otherwise very good album. “Open” is patently terrible, and features a truly obnoxious set of exaggerated gasps from Spektor.
So there you have it. If you want an alternatingly light and teary summer album, Cheap Seats is a good option. And if you gave up on her after Far, I understand, but it is time to forgive a great talent for on bad effort.
Can’t Miss: “How”, “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”, “Small Town Moon”, “Firewood”
Can’t Hit: “Open”, “Ballad of a Politician”