The song "Samson" is a standout on Regina Spektor's album Begin to Hope, and the one you're likely to come across first. It's a womanly, if weird, account of a not-so-Biblical affair. And despite the fact that Wonder bread is an element in the chorus, it's a quite arresting reminiscence of love and haircuts. Spektor's voice, inflected with her native Russian, swells and recedes along with her piano playing in a way that makes the song completely captivating. It's the kind of song that makes you want to see the movie, even if there isn't one.
Listening to the entire album, though, it quickly becomes apparent that Spektor's music is more girl than woman. It's something she has complained about (or at least, observed) in interviews: that many descriptions of her invoke the word "childlike." Well, if your CD liner notes are adorned with art that looks like it comes from a bedtime story and your lyrics talk about eating slices of Wonder bread and dreaming of orca whales, then you've probably got to brace yourself for a "childlike" or two.
While it's true that Spektor has a kid's sense of whimsy, she isn't just twirling around on the good ship lollipop. The classically trained pianist and singer-songwriter is capable of offering a sound, and a lyrical content, with plenty of depth. She is mining the same combination of theatricality and woman-girl sensuality as Fiona Apple and Bjork before her.
As with those two artists, the amount of pleasure you'll derive from Spektor's work depends on just how much idiosyncrasy you can tolerate. Personally, she lost me at "Hey remember that time when my favorite colors was pink and green/Hey remember that month when I only ate boxes of tangerines/So cheap and juicy!" on the album's ninth track, "That Time."
Spektor intends her songs to be little stories. So if you get piqued, don't direct it at her -- save it for the character portrayed in the song. Much of the time there's a sensibility to admire, even if a song gets grating for one reason or another. Spektor is never simply cute, simply tragic -- simply anything. The same song featuring memories of tangerines also involves a recollection of waiting in the hospital to hear news of a friend who OD'ed. And her lyrics aren't always overcaffeinated. They can often be quite lovely, as in "Field Below," where "Again the sun was never called/And darkness spreads over the snow/Like ancient bruises."
It's very hard to get bored listening to this CD. In addition to her grand piano skills and versatile voice, Spektor indulges in vocal tics and accents that make her fascinating to listen to. She punctuates the chorus in "Apres Moi" with an "oh" that sounds like she's been punched in the stomach. It sounds like an odd afterthought, but you can't imagine the song without it.
A nice thing about Begin to Hope is that it doesn't sound like any label executives have tried to de-quirk Spektor. She seems free to gasp and pant and sing about Wonder bread all she wants, and for the most part this is a good thing. Yes, it's hard to get bored with Regina Spektor. But somehow, it's not hard to turn her off after awhile, either. After all, children are very free, which why they can be so magical -- and sometimes really annoying -- at the same time.