It’s always nice when you see an artist with a small but dedicated cult following slide into the big time. This time around it’s the turn of Russian-born New Yorker Regina Spektor – a taste worth acquiring. Already popular in the US, she first came to general attention in the UK with a compilation of earlier material saddled with the cumbersome title Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers. Now her first major release Begin To Hope will hopefully open up her distinctive talents to an even wider audience. It’s a rather glorious album, stylistically rich and defiantly eclectic.
Spektor can do poppy and plaintive with equal skill. The album is packed with catchy insistent tracks, the pinnacle of which is undoubtedly the superb On The Radio with Spektor hymning the virtues of listening to Guns N’ Roses‘ November Rain on a summer evening to a simple but effective mix of piano and handclaps. In stark contrast, the soaring, evocative Field Below drags you over a series of emotional speed-bumps and leaves you gasping.
Often likened to Tori Amos, by dint of being a non-blonde female – one who’s dispensed with guitars in favour of a piano – Spektor is more accessible than that comparison would suggest, though lyrically she does sometimes drift into an area that can be broadly labelled ‘quirky’. (Summer In The City is rather fixated with “cleavage, cleavage, cleavage” and the subsequent rising bulges in men’s pants.)
Not every experiment ends successfully. 20 Years Of Snow sees her sweet songbird vocals morph into Bjork-like yelping and has Spektor bashing at her piano like it’s been particularly naughty. More appealing by far is the jerky, urban, semi-spoken drift of That Time, which asks repeatedly: “Hey remember that time when I would only eat tangerines? Hey remember that time when I would only read the backs of cereal boxes?”.
Better still, the amazing Apres Moi, sees Spektor mining her Russian roots to create an orchestral explosion that Rufus Wainwright would be proud of. Singing in both English and Russian (an achingly sexy language with its soft consonants and fluid vowels) over a wave of xylophone and ominous percussion, it’s obscenely dramatic and quite, quite beautiful.
Begin To Hope is a bright-eyed collage of musical styles, songs lifted in magpie fashion from different genres and knitted together with impressive skill. Her voice proves itself just about up to the challenge of a Billie Holiday homage in Lady, a smoky bluesy number drenched in late-night jazz club atmosphere. Whereas Summer In The City, the album’s poignant closer, is a perfect poem of urban longing and loneliness.
Sometimes you wish she’d settle on one sound, one style, for just a little while before flitting off elsewhere, but the next thing that comes along, however different, is always interesting so you don’t mourn for too long. Idiosyncratic but never impenetrable, Begin To Hope should deliver Spektor the greater recognition she richly deserves.