“The piano is not firewood yet,” Regina Spektor declares not long into her new album, and indeed it's hard to imagine this New York City songstress running out of better applications for her instrument any time soon.
On “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats,” her fourth major-label studio set, Spektor uses the piano to anchor a succession of far-flung ditties, including the funky, suite-like “Small Town Moon,” the fuzzily percussive “All the Rowboats” and the deeply affecting white-soul ballad “How.” Her partner here, the producer Mike Elizondo, knows how to help diversify an artist's sound without muddying the mix; he famously de-cluttered Fiona Apple's “Extraordinary Machine.”
Beyond her playing, Spektor holds together the music on “Cheap Seats” with her singing, which even at its most intricately melodic (as in “Oh Marcello”) retains an improvisatory feel, as though she's making up these songs as she goes.
In “Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” — not the Jaques Brel tune — Spektor chews over the phrase “I love Paris in the rain” atop a bouncy quirk-pop groove, while “Patron Saint” finds her stretching “true love” to at least a dozen syllables. Those lyrical snippets tell you that Spektor, like so many songwriters, has romance on the brain. But, as with her unique arrangements, she rarely comes at the topic from the angle you'd expect.
“What We Saw From the Cheap Seats”
Three stars (Out of four)
— Mikael Wood