For a few albums now, Regina Spektor has been toeing the line between solemn balladeer and goofy, geeky little girl; on her new LP, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, she has not resolved this dichotomy — in fact, she seems to have embraced it. On the album Spektor, who is an indie-pop solo act in the tradition of Ingrid Michaelson and Tori Amos, is by turns silly and sober, but always sentimental.
Regina’s full, warbling voice is and always has been versatile, and on this disc she applies it to as many different places as she can. Her voice seems well-suited on a very silly dialogue between herself and a fellow named Marcello on the cheeky “Oh Marcello”, but two songs later she’s belting mournful notes over the album standout “Firewood”, which explores the denial and fear one faces when confronting the death of a loved one. It’s a moving, tragic expression, one that’s, I could not help but think, more deserving of inclusion than the exaggerated Italian accents on “Marcello”.
That’s not to say that silly can’t be good; in fact, one of the album’s most memorable tunes is “Don’t Live Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”, a bilingual romp that’s about as catchy as the Black Plague. But the childlike songs can be hit-and-miss, and sometimes end up being simply unmemorable (see the thankfully short “The Party”). Actually, even some of the serious songs (“Open”) end up not being so memorable.
And that’s the problem I have with this album. I can’t say it’s not good, because it definitely is. Regina’s formula hasn’t changed a whole lot, and songs like “Patron Saint” still feature those familiar swells from head-bobbing verses to swelling choruses. But at just 37 minutes, with only a few really great songs, I can’t see this album being remembered the way I think her previous album, Far — which had a plethora of memorable tunes both cute and serious — will be. There’s just not a lot that really jumps out.
In fact, other than the last few, all the songs on the record are at the very least good. “All The Rowboats”, an early single, is atmospheric and compelling, and “Ballad of a Politician” is classic tongue-in-cheek Regina. That’s why it’s kind of heartbreaking to come away from the album feeling as unsatisfied as I do — I hate to relegate the disc, on which Regina puts forth her fullest effort and writes her sentimental heart out, to the halls of mediocrity so early. Fluid, emotional ballads like “How” do have a certain undeniable charm. In the end, though, Regina’s attempt to run the gamut of moods lands her squarely in the middle of it all; Cheap Seats is good material coming from an artist who’s proven herself great several times over. In other words, a cheap-seats view of a masterpiece performance. Score: 6.5/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor