I must admit, I was shocked to see a Regina Spektor video clip sandwiched between drab skits on a recent Saturday Night Live; which means that Spektor must have some serious major label muscle behind her. Now I’ve gotta word this carefully, but I haven’t heard an artist on a major label this individualist and fearless in a long time. And given the ruthless profit margin of record companies these days, I can only come to one conclusion: some A&R type fucked up, thinking he had the new Michelle Branch, and is gonna lose his job. Which, if this is even possible, makes Soviet Kitsch doubly sweet.
Y’see, Regina Spektor doesn’t do “niche” very well. As much as she is Syd Barrett or Laura Nyro or even Johnny Lydon, she is just as much Victor Borge or Liberace or even that guy who plays mildly sarcastic political songs on the piano for PBS. An entertainer wayyyy deep down. Spektor quickly and effortlessly veers from playing those stately piano lines so gently to gleefully deciding to fuck with those selfsame piano parts with total exuberance. The clash between her marked ability in playing and composing music and a total disregard and rebellious disdain for the rules involved in doing so make for a compelling listening. Like the “fuck the lyrics” nyahh-nahh-nahh breakdown in the paint-peeling punk screamer “Your Honor” and the sudden Hava Nagila rave-up in “The Flowers.” It reminds me of those old TV specials where Liberace would turn “Chopsticks” into a grand symphony, or the moment when Victor Borge’s red face turned to the camera and he smiled so broadly because he’s showing you musical sleight of hand. It’s just fucking fun to hear, and you’ll be smiling in spite of yourself.
When I hear Soviet Kitsch, fun and spontaneity seem the guiding principles, the endgame. Everything breaks down into healing, cleansing laughter. She comes out of that anti-folk scene, right? I can see a lot of their nonchalance and amateurism (the good bits) here. Like in how a downright baroque piece of melancholy majesty like “Ode To Divorce” can include a chorus of “won’t you help a brother out?” or a pseudo hip-hop lyrical hook “you’re going in/in/for the killer/kiss/kiss”. “On Poor Little Rich Boy,” Spektor goes all Quintron one-man band style and plays piano with the left hand while providing piano-bench percussion on her right (with drumstick) — note that the lyrics pay unintentional homage to Patti Smith with the “you’re so young/you’re so goddamn young” coda. The surreal dream narrative, “Chemo Limo,” reminds me of the nursery rhyme nightmares of Syd Barrett, circa “Vegetable Man,” and the clipped chorus is so strange and wonderful, not to mention a vocal performance that goes from cholo diva to human beatbox in a Kraftwerk song (new wave!) to ethereal flower.
Spektor has so many amazing tics in her voice, be it the oft-childlike over-enunciation, ramming headlike into a lilting Russian accent, melting straightaway into a Chan Marshall-esque shriek and coo (“Carbon Monoxide’s” c’mon daddy refrain), Siouxsie Sioux vocal terror/freedom and maybe even some Judy Garland torch song/musical theater drama. Don’t believe me? Check out the nimble vamp/prelude that begins “Sailor Song,” which soon bursts out open into a full-throated piano hall barn-burner chorus of “Marianne’s a bitch!” over and over. Pomposity is coolly dispatched with pranks and tricks (like the “walk-a walk-a walk” lyric buoyed aloft by clear ringing piano chords on “Carbon Monoxide” that sounds all the world like Fozzie Bear shamelessly mugging on the Muppet Show) and joy.
Elsewhere, there are these totally huge life-affirming songs in ways that few bands can pull off without seeming like Bono hitting you over the head with that fucking white flag. I’m thinking of the touching, huge-hearted advice (“people are just people/no need to make you nervous”) tendered over ringing waves of piano in “Ghosts of Corporate Future.” Or the melancholic and beautiful chords like the Beatles in their prime, “Hey Jude” for the antifolk scene that is “Somedays” complete with heart-on-sleeve evocation of gender-trickery (“I’m in love with your daughter/I want to have her baby”) and when the strings kick in around “Down, Down” and her voice rises to the heavens, to follow up with “don’t call me/don’t call me/ don’t write” — well the waterworks are flowing, and she can do the airplane sound with her lips all she wants, I’m a blubbering wreck. “Somedays aren’t your own.”
Spektor’s a true original. Don’t change a thing.
Regina Spekor: www.reginaspektor.com