While half-dozing on the couch recently, I faintly overheard Jay Leno introduce his night’s musical guest. Never heard of her.
Zzzzz. Deep sleep was within an inch’s reach when all of a sudden I was jerked upright, enthralled, giddy even. The song’s first few measures had slapped me awake, making me perhaps the most instantaneous convert among Regina Spektor’s small but rabid following. Her 2005 album Soviet Kitsch and a couple of independent records earned her cult status among hipsters and underground music writers, but her latest effort is her most ambitious and commercial yet. Some of her fans were outraged that she shed her sparse piano-vocal production and lavished her new album with synthesizers and drum machines. Ignorance is bliss for those of us arriving late to the party. Being unfamiliar with her earlier, quirkier efforts meant not being disappointed at her more conventional approach on her new one, Begin to Hope. And don’t worry Regina: For every cultist who jumps ship, five more will climb aboard. Begin has one leg planted in mainstream pop, the other hopscotching from classical to punk to cabaret to torch and beyond.
Spektor’s captivating performance on the Leno show featured, “Fidelity,” the pop ballad that opens the new album: “I never loved nobody fully / Always one foot on the ground / And by protecting my heart truly / I got lost in the sounds I hear in my mind.”
I’ve been hoodwinked in the past after hearing a great song and then rushing out to buy the c.d. only to find that the rest of the album was crap. Fortunately, Begin contains several equally appealing songs, including “Samson,” a clever rewrite of the Bible tale; “Lady” and its homage to Billie Holiday; and the melancholy but mesmerizing closer, “Summer in the City.” Spektor’s vocal style — a mixture of falsettos, hiccups, little girl innocence, and breathy sultriness — is sheer seduction, although she crosses the line into cutesy charade at times, such as on “20 Years of Snow” and “That Time,” a downright annoying tune lyrically and vocally. “Hotel Song” disconcerts with its signature riff lifted from the old Hollies classic “Just One Look.”
Still, this is a fascinating album worth delving into. In a just world, Begin would do for Spektor what Come Away With Me did for Nora Jones in 2002, propelling her to Grammy awards and fame and fortune. Spektor, far more than Jones, explores twisted territories and sprinkles her lyrics with non-radio-friendly references to cocaine, boobs, piss, and overdoses. Yet she’s got enough marketable pixie dust in her blood to make her music palatable to the masses. Modern alt-rock is polarized these days, with musicians either sticking close to the comfort zone or trying too hard to recreate the wheel and ending up with weird for weird’s sake. Spektor melds those two mindsets to create a unique and appealing sound and persona that should make this groovy Russian-born Jew from the Bronx a bona fide pop radio star, but probably won’t. Since when is this a just world?