I have always wondered where Regina Spektor draws her inspiration. On a diet of unashamedly zany, brash music bordering on the bizarre – it’s a fair question. Perhaps she unleashes a hoard of zoo animals into a kitchen, unhinging pots and pans, until she hears something she likes and sets it to piano.
This is clearly an exaggeration, yet were you to compile the most eccentric parts of Spektor’s discography you might come close. In reality, like a well-balanced piece of vegemite toast, her zaniness is spread finely over a foundation of soaring vocals and street-smart backing.
This is how Regina Spektor dropped into my life about a decade ago, in a whirl of unrestrained jazz, pop and anti-folk sensibilities. A Jewish emigrant who fled an anti-Semitic Russia when she was just 9, song-writing never came easy to her. To cope, she incorporated whimsical sounds into her work such as hiccups and odd trills to feel her way through the process.
This is the aspect that most divides her fans and critics alike – her almost childish manipulation of her voice. As a kid, it amused me to no end. In her later albums, notably Far, she goes to extremes, mocking Russian robot noises, imitating dolphins and stretching her voice almost to breaking point. While endearing and hilarious at times, she appears almost as a caricature of herself, and never lets her voice flow long enough uninterrupted to inject the audience with the full impact of her talent.
Yet in Begin to Hope, Spektor measures it to perfection. Her quirk is certainly present, but sprinkled on as a delicious topping rather than making up the meat of the songs. Take Fidelity for example – the song that blasted her from the little known, anti-folk enigma to bonafide sensation. The hit draws her best elements together in a nicely assembled package. The word ‘fidelity’ is scattered into almost 15 syllables (quite a feat), but it is light and digestible – more so than robot noises anyway.
In this way Begin to Hope marked a middle point. She had refined her sound from her earlier recording, which were awash with almost manic episodes of feverish scats and near-screams. Yet by guiding and honing her crafts, Begin to Hope allowed her to escape her beginnings and reach beyond her anti-folk Bronx roots.
Yet Begin to Hope never feels restricted. Most with a supple voice like Spektor’s would find their niche and stick to it. Spektor certainly makes the most of this in several songs, swooning and caressing in the poignant Samson. Rather than confining herself to conventions, she embraces her theatrical tendencies and sets forth to crumble boundaries every chance she gets. She once said that she hopes she can one day craft an album that her fans would struggle to recognise her voice in half the songs – a fact which doesn’t surprise me. Raised on rations of classical music with not a slither of pop or alternative music in sight, she is not phased by traditional musical concepts, nor her own life experiences. She regularly maintains that most of the content of her songs is completely made up.
In Begin to Hope came the opportunity to work with a major label and a quality producer that could transform her eccentric lyrics and vocal scatting into a polished and coherent sound. She also was blessed to work with Nick Valenci of The Strokes, former tour mates – making the expert guitar riffs in Better suddenly make more sense.
It’s songs like That Time that best represent Spektor. With her vocals dancing around a growling guitar, she begins light-heartedly – “Hey remember that month I only ate boxes of tangerines,” followed by a girlish squeal “so cheap and JUICY!”. Yet from nowhere she descends into a restrained whisper – “Hey remember that time you OD’ed?” Truth or fiction, there’s no doubt it hits a chord. The album is littered with juxtaposition such as this. Apres Moi’s deep, dragging piano and coarse and cinematic vocals are a sombre accompaniment to Hotel Song’s gleeful sprightliness and On The Radio’s carefree melodies.
In a career defined by endless talent and endearing idiosyncrasies, Begin to Hope is Regina Spektor at her very best. Hilariously zany but restrained, bizarre yet logical – we can only hope for more dolphin sounds next time around.