2 stars (out of 4)
Quirkiness that could turn dark, even disturbing, had its way on the first few Regina Spektor albums, which made her a cult star championed by the Strokes and Kings of Leon, among others. The classically-trained, Moscow-born New Yorker even had a European hit with “Us.”
Her 2008 release, “Far,” tried to shape her eccentricities into mainstream pop formula, with high-budget producers David Kahne, Garrett “Jacknife” Lee, Jeff Lynne and Mike Elizondo sanding down some of her harsher edges. Spektor came off as a domesticated version of her former self: a chirpy, piano-playing singer-songwriter, her vocal tics and dolphin imitations folded inside pleasant melodies.
Elizondo is back on the job for her sixth studio album, “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats” (Sire), and once again his job seems to be to keep Spektor from running amok. A telling sign is a remake of one of Spektor’s earlier songs, “Ne me quitte pas,” here retitled with its English translation: “Don’t Leave Me.” The 2002 original was jagged and tentative, perfectly capturing the romanticism and mystery of a city full of strangers and potential soul mates. Elizondo’s remake refashions it as a bouncy, Caribbean-flavored lark, a cartoon.
Any sort of complexity or discomfort is avoided. The nadir arrives in the plaintive “How,” a woe-is-me ballad undercut by Spektor’s wordless vocal interjections that sound as if someone were pinching her arm.
The best song, “All the Rowboats,” finds Spektor’s imagination running wild over a racing rhythm, in which she describes museums as prisons for artwork yearning to break free. “It’s their own fault for being timeless,” she snaps. But most of the songs are so flat that the singer sounds constrained. As she audibly gulps and gasps in “Open,” one can’t help but feel she’d like to open a window and make her escape.
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