So begins "Fidelity," the first song on Regina Spektor's fourth album, Begin to Hope (Sire, 2006). Strings are plucked; drums push the beat--with guitars, this would be a predictable pop song, but without them, something sticks in your chest. Spektor's voice fills space; when she sings the word "heart" on the chorus, she stutters and elongates the word--"ha-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-art." Like fellow pianist Fiona Apple, Spektor goes from whisper to wail, from jazz trill to operatic flourish. The drums pick up; her voice gets louder as she sings, "I hear in my mind, all this music, and it breaks my heart, it breaks my heart," and you can almost see her standing at the microphone, red lips, black dress, the only bright thing in focus in a blurry room.
"Samson went back to bed, not much hair left on his head, ate a slice of Wonder bread and went right back to bed"
On "Samson," Spektor's voice sounds girlish. A hint of her native Russian peeks through, and you can imagine her piano in an empty loft with floor-to-ceiling windows. It's hard not to fall in love with her warmth and weirdness--this is a girl who hiccups while singing, who plays piano while hitting her bench with a drumstick, who sings about drugs with the pathos of literature. In an interview on NPR earlier this year, Spektor likened songwriting to fiction writing, and talked about how her songs are not written about her. "Who the hell wants to be themselves all the time? It's so boring," she told Melissa Block.
"And on the radio we heard 'November Rain'--the solo's real long, but it's a pretty song. We listened to it twice, 'cause the DJ was asleep"
Keyboards create synthesized choruses of strings; hands clap along with Spektor's ba-bum-bums on "On the Radio"--only Spektor can get away with singing a song about listening to a Guns N' Roses song and make it more than authentic. Spektor's characters inhabit giddy realms where even the saddest moments are undercut by an intense optimism.
"Be afraid of the lame, they'll inherit your legs. Be afraid of the old, they'll inherit your souls"
Spektor immigrated to the United States with her Russian Jewish refugee family. They couldn't bring their piano, so she practiced wherever she could. It wasn't until she was much older that she started writing her own songs, but her Russian classical training is the backbone of her own compositions: On "Aprés Moi," the piano resonates with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Spektor sings an excerpt from a poem by Boris Pasternak in Russian toward the end, throws in guttural "umphs" and somehow works in melodies that will sound familiar to anyone raised on traditional Jewish music. Spektor's music is pure first-generation assimilation, cultures and traditions blending into something entirely different.
"Remember that month when I only ate boxes of tangerines? So cheap and juicy!"
Spektor recorded her third record, Soviet Kitsch (re-released by Sire in 2004), with Gordon Raphael, who also recorded the Strokes' Room on Fire. Julian Casablancas heard Spektor's music, and before she knew it, the Strokes were performing as her backing band, and Spektor began to get more and more attention (Nick Valensi plays guitar on one song on Begin to Hope). She's always been open to blending her more orchestral and jazz compositions with rock and punk: On Soviet Kitsch, she worked with a punk band called Kill Kenada, and on "That Time," on Begin to Hope, a guitar plays the sort of one-string melody every teenage garage band has at some point used, but Spektor's enthusiasm makes the song sparkle--she makes it all seem so easy. She's not afraid of trying anything.
"Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage"
Spektor as lonely barfly on "Summer in the City" is drunk and desperate: "I went to protest just to rub up against strangers," she sings, "and I did feel like coming, but I also felt like crying." Everything about the song sways: Spektor's voice, the piano, the drunken barfly. As the piano climbs into its ending scale, Begin to Hope closes just as quietly as it began, letting all of the louder and crazier moments reverberate somewhere in the back of your mind.