Thursday, June 28, 2012

album review: 'what we saw from the cheap seats' by regina spektor

Short version: a frustrating album with some interesting ideas and a few stand-out tracks, let down by some annoying production, haphazard lyrical quality, and questionable delivery. Still, it's worth a look. Also, I deliver a lengthy diatribe about two genres of music I generally dislike. If you like rants, this is a good one. Long version...

There aren't many artists that I can say I despise. On that list... well, we have Jason Derulo, Chris Brown, the Pussycat Dolls, Evanescence, Rick Ross, Slipknot, Foster The People, 3OH!3, 3 Days Grace, Creed...

Okay, maybe the list is a bit longer than I thought, but my point is that there is a set of three artists that I despise for different reasons than those in the list above, and all three of these artists have a first name beginning with J.

Yes, I'm talking about Jack Johnson, John Mayer, and Jason Mraz.

Now, most people probably don't get why I hate these fairly innocuous guys (well, John Mayer is a well-publicized tool, but that's besides the point). They aren't as aggressively obnoxious and hateable as 3OH!3 or Foster The People, or as blatant incompetent failures as Rick Ross or Evanescence, or as utterly contemptible human beings like Chris Brown, or produce the kind of horrendous music that will play in my personal hell, like 3 Days Grace or Slipknot. For all intents and purposes, the music of the Three Js (a decent doo-wop band name, come to think of it) doesn't really attract much ire.

But I hate their music for the same reason I hate the Dixie Chicks and Peter Cetera of Chicago - it's the boring and passionless music of complete hacks. While I have more patience for mellow music than most (I like the Zac Brown Band, and I can tolerate Tim McGraw's Xanax-like music on occasion), the Three Js produce the kind of insincere mellowness that is only ever promoted by douchebags looking to get laid. There's no passion, there's no energy, there's no sense of sincerity, there's no artistic drive or integrity. Their lyrics are as pointless and artless as those promoting the hipster brand of Foster The People, but without the energy to try to be weird or interesting. Foster The People might be failures in the indie rock scene in my opinion, but at least they had the decency to try! The Three Js write music for people who will never dare to try, and will instead subsist in their own bloated listless mediocrity for the rest of their fucking lives. It is music for people who abstain from exceptionalism in the pursuit of the utter blandness of normality. Fuck that shit.

These three populate a genre of music I despise with few exceptions: the 'white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar' genre, and while songs like 'Hey There Delilah' work to sound sincere and honest (if a bit clumsy and amateurish), the majority of this genre is lazy, artless, and absolute shit. People wonder why I hate Bruno Mars' 'The Lazy Song'? This is why.

But this genre of music is not unique to guys, and here's where I'm going to piss people off, because the analogous genre to this is typically drawn to 'White-Chick-With-Piano'. Now, granted, the number of artists that fill this particular genre are marginally more tolerable than their male counterparts, but the same sort of artless bland mediocrity is just as prevalent in this genre. Artists like Sarah McLachlan and Vanessa Carlton (outside of her bisexuality - oh yeah, for those who aren't aware, that happened) and Christina Perri and Lily Allen and Natasha Bedingfield and every fucking Evanescence ballad every released, and yes, some of the output of artists like Alanis Morrisette and Norah Jones and Tori Amos and Sara Bareilles and even Adele. I don't hate this music quite as much as the Three Js, but between the unearned pretentiousness and the generally bland performance and the intolerable smugness (thank you so much, Lily Allen and Natasha Bedingfield), most of this music really turns me off.

Now what you might not know is that I actually put two of these 'White-Chick-With-Piano' songs on my personal Billboard Top 10 for last year, 'Jar of Hearts' by Christina Perri and 'Someone Like You' by Adele. Let me make this clear: while I have turned on 'Jar of Hearts' slightly over the past six months, I'm still of the belief that the song works because it feels sincere, heartfelt, and because it appeals to my anti-douchebag sensibilities that were in full-force last December. It was better than Beyonce's faux-feminist tracks like 'Irreplaceable' (a song I utterly loathe, by the way) because it had the complexity and sincerity to work. And as for Adele... well shit, Adele basically delivered the same type of song as 'Jar of Hearts', but significantly better written and with another added layer of genuine heartbroken complexity - Adele sells the song as a complete trainwreck, and the fact that song comes at the end of a genuinely angry album makes it all the more potent. Both songs got it right - Adele just got it more.

So yeah, this music can work, but the principle remains the same - you need to have something raw energy, or some sincerity, or some musical complexity and artistry (this is where Tori Amos does redeem herself) to elevate the format above the normal tide of mediocre, boring shit. You need some artistry, some intelligence, some raw passion, something that might mean something.

So when I decided to take a look at Regina Spektor's What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, there was both anticipation and trepidation. To my disappointment, she's not related to Phil Spector, but she is critically acclaimed for weird and eclectic. She's also a part of the anti-folk genre, where the oft-politically charged themes are subverted and mocked. Before going into this album, I was very much aware this could go in two directions: it could either have a lot of fun with it, like the Barenaked Ladies, or it could get horribly smug very fast. 

The album starts with 'Small Town Moon' on a relatively low-key intro, and my first observation from the lyrics is that Regina Spektor isn't looking to rhyme... or to make much sense. She sings about leaving about a thousand times, and then comments that she knows every time she leaves, she hurts people. The conclusion I then draw is that she should really stop leaving, because I don't get the feeling that she's got much of a goal outside of said town (outside of the 'moon', which could mean anything), or else she's a real bitch. Coupled with some rather energetic stomping chorus instrumentation, I get the feeling she wants the song to celebrate her departure so that it doesn't hurt as much - which I guess isn't a bad sentiment, but the song really doesn't paint a good picture of Spektor as she tries to tell people this has happened so often they should be prepared by now. Or, you know, if you know that you're hurting people, you could stop.

The next song, 'Oh Marcello', certainly has more intriguing and driving instrumentation (which unfortunately reminds me of Evita in a bad way, because I truly dislike that musical), but the lyrics raise more questions. Once again, we're reassured of Spektor's good intentions and that she doesn't want to be misunderstood, but the lyrics imply she's going to bear a child who'll become a dictator and kill everyone, and that she somehow knows this. I don't want to misunderstand anything, but please explain how this can possibly end well.

And from a Latin-esque song, we move to a song driven by a beat stolen from the Postal Service. It's interesting, but the lyrics tell the more intriguing story. Spektor seems to speaking from the perspective of a desperately poor prostitute trying to solicit clients. Of the opening tracks, it's one the few that doesn't cast Spektor as intolerable, although some of the parts of the third verse do raise some questions whether or not her character has STDs, and the final sequence of the song is completely unnecessary. Overall, the jazzy feel of the song does redeem it, but I'm really starting to wonder if Spektor has anything of substance to say besides smugly whimsical nothingness.

The next song is called 'Firewood', and like the first track is started by piano - but unlike that track, it actually has something interesting to say. The broad urgings of hope and the plea that 'the piano is not firewood', yet the mournful certainty of the piano's eventual demise is executed beautifully. It's an act of generosity and honesty I didn't think Spektor was really capable of, and her gentle reassurances that things will eventually improve are very heartening indeed. So far, best tune of the bunch.

Following that song is 'Patron Saint', a song I've got mixed feelings about. From what I can interpret from the lyrics, it seems to be focusing on a self-destructive party girl, who seems to be the 'patron saint' of the title - the patron saint of 'showing true love exists', given the connection the unknown guy she seems to be singing to has with her, a connection that Spektor stresses the guy shouldn't use to help 'fix' the girl. So while Coldplay's message goes unfounded, I've got to say I want to like this song more than I do. The music's lackluster, and Spektor's delivery seems overdone.

Granted, the next song 'How' does fit Spektor's bigger delivery than 'Patron Saint', but despite the instrumental flourishes I like, I find myself finding that Spektor does overuse the reverb on this mix. And while the song is probably the simplest so far on the album (in that it's a song from a dumped girl still not over the dumping), it also has left me with the least impact. Part of it is Spektor's delivery - there's a strange lack of rawness that's required to make songs like this work, and she's a bit too smooth to make it work. And it also doesn't help that the song feels a bit unfinished, and lacks the final concluding chords to truly strike the emotional blows.

Fortunately, Spektor redeems herself with 'All The Rowboats', easily her heaviest and darkest song so far on the record, and I'd argue one of the best. The piano is superb, the backing bass is expert and memorable, the lyrics are abstract enough to spark a lot of interesting ideas, and the use of reverb adds a wonderful epic hollowness to the song that the hard guitars and booming drums enhance. It's symphonic and gorgeous, and easily one of my favourite - although I'm not the biggest fan of Spektor accompanying her sound effects by blowing into the mic.

'Ballad of A Politician' is the second song about a desperate prostitute, this time augmented by some truly creepy electronic effects. What I like most about this song is the obvious parallels between politics and prostitution, the sort of song that Lady Gaga tried to create with 'Government Hooker' and failed. It's nothing that original - Chumbawamba's been drawing that sort of comparison since the late 80s, and the punk movement has been doing it longer. What makes this song work, however, is the real bitterness in Spektor's delivery and the creative use of reverb again. I find interesting, though, that an 'anti-folk' singer wrote a song as disdainful of politics as most common folk singers, and then chose to layer it with the iciest of pop production.

The next track 'Open' seems to taking a similar direction to 'How', but the abundance of minor chords and the surprisingly heavy reverb makes the song seem much less mournful and far more hollow. It also uses a lot of these tricks to emulate the production tricks of 'All The Rowboats' and sound a lot bigger and significantly creepier than I expected. It's also one of the most artistically and yet explicitly sexual songs I've seen from a female artist since Kellis' 'Milkshake', and believe me, I like this one a lot more.

Unfortunately, the next song 'The Party' completely abandons the interesting production and the abstract lyrics to write a song that feels so much like a rejected fun. outtake it's a little shocking. Now, granted, the bigness of the song is appreciated, but the lyrics are juvenile to the point of stupidity, and the little gimmick of Spektor making noises along with her music isn't appreciated in any way. Although, I will say this - it's nice to hear a song from Spektor that actually sounds like it has an ending. And then the album ends with 'Jessica', a dopey little guitar melody that adds absolutely nothing to the album before fading away to nothing, leaving me confused and still trying to wonder what the hell Regina Spektor was trying to accomplish with this whole experiment. 

So that was What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, and what do I think? Well, I can say this: on the instrumentation, she's great. She's got a real knack for interesting mixes and making her songs sound bigger than they are. I don't like how she leaves some tracks seemingly unfinished, lacking the necessary musical thesis statement to tie the song together, but overall the mixes are interesting enough. The production, however, is where cracks do show - even though I will admit Spektor sounds best when her tracks feel echoing and hollow, she abuses reverb far too much, certainly enough to be noticeable. I'd be interested to see how she could recreate her 'big' sound without studio production, that's for sure.

As it is, I think that Spektor does have genuine potential as an artist. She's got a real gift for making her songs sound a lot bigger than they are, and when she tends towards lyrical abstraction, she can create something interesting. She also has a real childlike whimsy that adds an interesting satirical edge to some her tracks, but also betrays a real immaturity on her part to write about deeper concepts that she's clearly capable to addressing (with 'Open' and 'Firewood' and 'All The Rowboats' and ' Ballad of a Politician'). The faux-beatboxing got old really fast, and it doesn't add anything other than eclectic weirdness that detracts from some of her potentially heavier tracks. The lyrics also don't help matters - when Spektor's trying to write darker, more abstract poetry, she comes off well, but some of the sillier lines and the sloppy messaging in some tracks make her sound like a bratty teenager, self-absorbed in her silck universe. 

And it doesn't help that Spektor's delivery is haphazard at best. She's good when she wants to convey some gravitas, and her voice fits the dark, grim feel of some tracks, particularly when she takes that hollowness and stretches her range with it - it adds a great haunted, ethereal feel that I think adds a lot to the tracks. But I don't get the feeling, from taking a brief look at her discography, that she embraces this darker side often. No, instead we get a lot of the same bratty smugness that the sloppy lyrics lyrics that either come across as bitchy or just adolescent. And finally, and I hate using this term as a perjorative, but on some of those tracks, I get the feeling Spektor's trying to convey deeper significance than the tracks earn - in other words, it's pretentious.

This album frustrated me, because I want to like it and say that it's strong enough to overcome my general distaste for the 'white-chick-with-piano' genre. But between the unearned smugness reminiscent of Lily Allen and the so-so lyrics and the general overreach in the instrumentation, I'm left unfortunately unimpressed. Don't get me wrong, there are some good things here, but call me back when Regina Spektor grows up.

NEXT TIME: well it's time that I talk about something more mainstream, so next time, I'll be talking about a hip-hop album I should have reviewed a month ago. Stay tuned!

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