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Album review: Regina Spektor's 'Far'

June 22, 2009 |  7:14 pm
REGINA_240_ Of all the lines an artist can spend her life crossing, the one between "cute" and "cutesy" is one of the riskiest. Seriousness attaches itself to explicit violence or sexuality -- think of Eminem and Madonna, discussed in the halls of church and state. Going deep into the realm of childlike wonder and whimsicality has the opposite effect. People smile at art rendered in pretty colors and a sunny voice, but they don't think about it too hard; doing so might result in sugar shock.

Regina Spektor traffics in cuteness as a form of alienation, a way of distinguishing her perceptions from the "normal" way of viewing things. The 29-year-old Jewish "anti-folk" star is a classic outsider: She emigrated from Moscow to the Bronx as a child, and from concert piano to pop during high school.

Now a cult performer whose songs frequently turn up in the background of prime-time television dramas, Spektor is a more daring artist than her quirky surfaces indicate. Her approach seems guileless and folk-artsy at first, but behind her odd vocal effects is the desire to break through the bonds of any one language, as her magic-realist lyrics seek to comprehend the human condition of not fitting in.

Spektor's new album, "Far," comes after the breakthrough success of 2006's "Begin to Hope," and shows the effects of semi-stardom. Its songs are carefully polished by a cluster of A-list producers (including David Kahne, who helmed her last one, and Jeff Lynne, of ELO/Traveling Wilburys fame). The fables and fantasy lives they depict are rendered in fairly understandable terms. Yet "Far" still shows the range that Spektor can travel within her dreamy world.

Sometimes, here, she's a bit obvious. Going cyborg in "Machine," Spektor puts on a robot voice; in "Dance Anthem of the '80s" she basically rewrites a B-52's song. When she's too straightforward, Spektor's writing can be a touch smug, finding easy poignancy in the story of a lost wallet or reminding cynics that "no one laughs at God in a hospital."

But even on that song, "Laughing With," Spektor uses cuteness to go a little further. She puts on a squeaky voice for the chorus, getting at the discomfort that comes when something serious (spirituality, in this case) is trivialized. 

She's more on target when she's more ambiguous -- intertwining an ascendant vocal line with piano arpeggios to describe a local mystery in "Genius Next Door," or playing around with the creation myth on the slowly building "Blue Lips." Best of all is "Eet," a meditation on how language relates to memory that's as literary as it is nonsensical.

Somebody's going to use this song in a commercial soon, playing it behind a slow-motion shot of flowers opening up. It deserves better. It's not just cute. 

-- Ann Powers

Regina Spektor
Three and a half stars