Regina Spektor's gold album BeginTo Hope was honored as one of Rolling Stone's Top 50 albums of 2006. Far, her much anticipated follow-up, once again spotlights Spektor's daring piano pop,vocal acrobatics and offbeat wit. Utilizing four esteemed producers-Jeff Lynne (ELO, The Traveling Wilburys), Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem), David Kahne (Paul McCartney, The Strokes) and Garret 'Jacknife' Lee (Weezer,R.E.M.) Spektor combines rich soundscapes with evocative and intricately structured melodies and a remarkable gift for crafting intelligent, refreshingly honest odes to life. With Far, major stardom draws near for Regina Spektor.
Review by Heather Phares
Regina Spektor worked with no less than four big-name producers on Far, all of them with very different backgrounds: David Kahne was her collaborator on 2006's Begin to Hope; Garret "Jacknife" Lee counts R.E.M. and U2 among his credits; Jeff Lynne's lavish sound is famous on ELO's albums; and Mike Elizondo has worked with Fiona Apple and Maroon 5. It's something of a surprise, then, that Far sounds so homogenized. On Soviet Kitsch and Begin to Hope, Spektor's wide-eyed moments were balanced with darker, knowing songs that kept her music grounded. Here, almost all of the rough or unpredictable edges have been smoothed away, and all that's left is Spektor's sweet, quirky side. At times, Far gets close to being unbearably precious, whether it's putting Spektor's name in all lowercase letters in the liner notes, her dolphin on the otherwise charming "Folding Chair," or lyrics like "We made our own computer out of macaroni pieces" on the chirpy opener, "The Calculation." Even the album's darker tracks, such as the percussion-heavy "Machine," are surprisingly sugary compared to her previous work. However, Spektor's guileless voice and delivery allow her to get away with sounds and ideas that would be horribly cloying in the hands of almost any other artist. She manages to make a song with the chorus "Eet, eet, eet" catchy and affecting, and fashions an observant and witty story out of returning a wallet to Blockbuster Video. Still, Far's best moments occur when Spektor turns down the whimsy a few notches. It's probably not a coincidence that the Kahne-produced "Human of the Year" shares some of Begin to Hope's intimacy and ambition, but "Blue Lips" and "Man of a Thousand Faces" also let Spektor's more mature -- but not overly serious -- side shine. Likewise, "Two Birds" and "One More Time with Feeling" show that she hasn't lost her touch for deceptively pretty pop with clever lyrics. While Far is far from bad, it doesn't quite live up to expectations, either, based on all the talent involved in making it and how fully Spektor expressed herself on Begin to Hope.
Regina Spektor is 29 years old. I point this out because on her newest album, Far, Spektor alternately imitates dolphin noises, talks about making a computer out of macaroni pieces, and fashions a refrain out of repetitions of the non-word "eet." And that's just within the first four songs.
Over the course of three proper studio albums and various other tangential releases, Regina Spektor has demonstrated a solid sense of popcraft and an occasional ability to capture slices of life in charmingly non-conventional ways. More to the point, however, she's displayed an unstinting weakness for intensely self-regarding cuteness and overplayed naïveté. Despite being closer to her 40th birthday than her Sweet 16, Spektor continues to romp wide-eyed through her compositions like Sally Hawkins' perennially cheery Poppy character from the Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky.
Spektor is buoyed on Far by the assistance of four top-flight producers, including Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem), Jacknife Lee (Bloc Party, Snow Patrol) and, oh yeah, Jeff Freaking Lynne. As you'd expect from such an impressive roll call, the album's sonics are exceptionally clean and tastefully tailored, from Lynne's moving string swells on "Blue Lips" to the eminently radio-friendly hook on the Elizondo-helmed "The Calculation" to the Beatles-y brass touches on "Two Birds" (courtesy, surprisingly enough, not of Lynne but of Lee).
Unfortunately, all this talent behind the boards often feels like a waste because of Spektor's inability to let her songs stand on their own merits without the persistent interjection of vocal curlicues or verbal flights of fancy. Notice how she ladles awful oversinging onto "Blue Lips" and "Human of the Year", or tries to put on some kind of robo-Germanic accent for the refrain to the horribly lumbering "Machine". I have no doubt these little whimsical flourishes go over like gangbusters in concert, but on a fifth or 10th or 20th listen to a studio album, how many people are really not going to cringe at these affectations?
Certainly it's easy to chalk up these eccentricities to Spektor's quirky "personality" (which belongs in scare quotes because god knows being quirky doesn't guarantee you have an interesting personality), but frequently they feel like a defense mechanism as well. After all, cuteness is a terrific tool for allowing anyone to get away with being trite, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why a song like the first single, "Laughing With", seems almost trenchant at first blush, yet upon closer scrutiny unravels into pure meaningless mush, a nattering scold that woefully misreads atheism and agnosticism, ticking off a list of boilerplate crises (war, poverty, a missing child) and reminding us that no one laughs at God in these situations, as though non-believers spend the majority of their tragedy-free time busting on the Almighty.
"Dance Anthem of the 80's" is emblematic of Spektor flashing genuine wit and emotional power yet being unable to get out of her own way. At one point Spektor almost off-handedly intones, "And it's been a long time since before I've been touched/ Now I'm getting touched all the time," and it's an undeniably stirring moment, yet it never has a chance to thrive, not when it's contending with Spektor mawkishly cooing, "you are so sweet," while stretching and trilling the word "sleep" at the end of each refrain to an almost unbelievably obnoxious degree. I like to imagine that somewhere 19-year-old Taylor Swift hears this song and shakes her head, wondering when Regina Spektor is ever going to grow up.