If I’m going to be honest before discovering this album Regina Spektor was very much an unknown quantity to me. A singer songwriter born in Russia yet relocated to New York at the age of nine. Very much the product of a melting pot of influences, a classically trained pianist from the age of six, yet exposed to the popular music of the west throughout her education.
The specific pop music influences aren’t that clear on her latest release Mary Ann meets the Gravediggers and other short stories. A collection of twelve tracks taken from her previous four albums and compiled together to form an introductory step in to her work. However there is a distant feel of populism that does linger in her songs and gives them accessibility for the casual listener.
The collection for the most part works well; most of the songs included here are comprised of simple piano and vocal arrangements with percussion provided in the simplest forms with handclaps and similar effects. The melodies themselves often come across as simplistic but that often lulls the listener into something of a false sense of security. Just as you are becoming used to these sparse open arrangements, you will suddenly find yourself rewarded with a complex flourish that shows Spektor’s skills as a pianist and thankfully these subtle movements and inflections between the world of popular and classical styles neither jar nor come across as forced or pretentious.
It is however the voice which draws your attention on this album and I daresay I’m not the first to draw comparisons between Regina and the likes of Tori Amos, Bjork and to a lesser degree Roisin Murphy. There’s no doubt that the voice can run a gamut of emotions and this is in evidence here. From the lightest almost angelic touches sweeping down the spectrum into the gutters of the world as booze soaked soulful snarls. She does manage to capture all these different aspects (often in the space of one song).
Spektor’s writing comes across very much like the frames of some twisted storyboard. She creates characters that could sit at some of the finest tables in fictional history while equally occupying the here and now. That same devil may care freedom that she demonstrates with her vocal talent is also in evidence in her writing. That is not to say that she is in way being slap dash or lazy, more a case of being somewhat unrestrained and having the courage to experiment with her own talent.
The subject matter is often the harbinger of some bizarre delights, for example on ‘Chemo Limo’ she explores a character juggling whether to spend her money on chemotherapy or taking the kids for a limousine ride around the city. Not the cheeriest subject matter for a song you would imagine but somehow the journey is inflected with a real genuine sense of joy, tricky to explain on paper it really does take a listen to convey the message. Then there are moments such as the sweeping “Us” in which Spektor cuts loose delivering another soaring performance complete with vocal tics and yelps that could have come from any anonymous 50’s vocal yet serve to give the track a real signature feel.
Describing the album is a difficult prospect, it’s not something I would consider my usual tastes but one track leads to another and before you know it you’ve covered the entire album. It’s a compelling listen and one that I think will be loitering on my player for a while yet.