Despite having toured with The Strokes and built up a burgeoning reputation within New York’s ‘anti-folk’ scene over the last few years, Regina Spektor is still pretty much an unknown in Britain. Her three self-released albums have been unavailable in this country, but the explosion of popularity in downloading music means that her name is slowly becoming more well-known.
Hence Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers, which is not a new Spektor album but rather a compilation which gathers together the best moments from her three albums so far. Born in Russia, she moved to New York’s Bronx at the age of 10 and started performing in the East Village’s collection of bars and cafes.
It’s fair to say that you’ve never heard anyone quite like Regina Spektor. Don’t be fooled by the Strokes connection (they share a producer in Gordon Raphael and Spektor appeared on the B-side to Reptila). This isn’t New York New Wave guitar pop, but something more traditional – albeit performed in a unique way.
The fact that she’s somewhat quirky and is accompanied by just a piano on most of these songs means that she draws somewhat lazy comparisons with Tori Amos, but there’s a lot more to her than the stereotypically ‘kooky singer/songwriter’ shtick.
There are all sorts of influences here, ranging from jazz and folk up to rap, hip-hop and classical music. The way Spektor performs these songs will be an acquired taste to many – it’s not easy listening by any means, but it is weirdly compelling.
Spektor’s lyrics often sound like a stream of consciousness rambling, but she has a real knack for character songs. Chemo Limo tells the poignant tale of a woman with cancer who shuns chemotherapy for the chance to ride in a limousine and “go out in style”, while Sailor Song features a girl who will “kiss until your lip bleeds, but she will not take her dress off”.
All these songs are set to complex arrangements that never fail to surprise – it sounds like she’s practising the musical scale in the middle of Consequence Of Sound, while Poor Little Rich Boy was apparently recorded with one hand playing the piano and the other beating a percussive rhythm on a chair leg with a drum stick.
Spektor’s vocal delivery also grabs the attention – one minute, she’s crooning conventionally, the next she’s firing out quick-fire raps, and the next she’s cooing like a latter-day Bjork. She even breaks into Latin in the middle of Lacrimosa. Sometimes, the effect is bewildering (the meandering Daniel Cowman takes a fair few plays to work its magic, as there’s just so much crammed into it), but mostly, as on the superb Pavlov’s Daughter it works beautifully.
The closing Us is Spektor at her very best – a stirring, Philip Glass-style string section merges beautifully with the piano riff and Spektor has never sounded better as she sings “they made a statue of us, and it put it on a mountain top”. The effect is dramatic, romantic and quite beautiful.
Rather like Nellie McKay (about the closest comparison you can make musically), Spektor may play jazzy songs on a piano, but she’s no Norah Jones. Edgy, evocative and challenging, this album won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it does serve as a perfect introduction to Regina Spektor.