Regina Spektor can hardly be classified as a conventional artist. Ignoring the popular trend of cookie-cutter love songs and run-of-the-mill melodies, she embraces the idiosyncratic and peculiar, and truly makes a statement by way of her music. Through her third album, Soviet Kitsch, Spektor presents to the masses what is already acclaimed by followers of New York’s antifolk scene: a compilation of provoking lyrics, quirky vocals and classically trained piano skills that blend to form a truly unique listening experience.
Born in Moscow, Spektor grew up in a musically inclined family and began playing piano at the young age of 6. When she was 9, Spektor and her parents immigrated to the Bronx, N.Y. Despite being unable to afford piano lessons there, Spektor impressed Sonia Vargas, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, prompting her to offer young Regina free piano lessons. Under Vargas’ tutelage, Spektor’s innate talent as a pianist developed and shaped much of who she is as a musician today.
Upon graduation from high school, Spektor attended SUNY-Purchase and was part of the prestigious Conservatory of Music at the upstate New York college. She began to play her first live gigs around the area and soon gained a local following. It was during this time that Spektor recorded her first album, called 11:11. Initial success at the local level prompted Spektor to move back in with her parents and devote her life to music and to playing gigs in and around New York City. Appearing at famed venues like the Sidewalk Café, the Living Room, Tonic, and the Knitting Factory, Spektor acquired an ever-increasing appreciation from lovers of the New York music scene. This led to her second recording, titled simply Songs, drawing critical praise and substantial commercial success.
Soviet Kitsch, Spektor’s third album endeavor, follows a stint opening for The Strokes on their “Room on Fire” tour and a vocal collaboration with The Strokes singer Julian Casablancas on “Modern Girls & Old Fashioned Men,” part of the B-side of the band’s “Reptilia” single. Probably Spektor’s most professional and musically mature production, Soviet Kitsch delivers 11 tracks that incorporate sounds like those of Billie Holiday and Björk with insightful, quirky lyrics and an innocence and naivete displayed prominently in Spektor’s raw vocals.
The sheer uniqueness of Soviet Kitsch definitely catches listeners off guard. Her roughly unprocessed voice both scares and entrances audiences, as it is frightening in its grittiness but captivating at the same time. Jumping from the quiet, ballad-type “Somedays” to the punk-inspired “Your Honor,” Soviet Kitsch is full of surprises. Right when the audience thinks it has got the album figured out, the next track begins and listeners are sent back into confusion. With her songs morphing from sweet and gentle to those like the seventh track, “***,” which serves as a segue to “Your Honor” and consists of a whispered conversation between Spektor and a young boy who seems to channel the “I see dead people” creepiness of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” Spektor impresses with her immense range as an artist.
Much of Spektor’s appeal can be found in her songwriting, with each song included on the album offering a gem of wisdom or telling a story sung from different points of view. Spektor said of her songs, “I come up with a lot of characters. I create little worlds. It’s like writing fiction.”
Her music is inspired by her own experiences, though, as she has said, “My music has a life of its own. Being an immigrant, being Jewish, listening to classical music as a kid; it all has an impact on what comes out of my mouth.”
Regina Spektor sings with a certain naivete that captures audiences’ hearts and reels listeners in with demure antics. This characteristic is evident in her live performances, during which Spektor has been known to “pout and giggle and murmur and feed the crowd chocolates.” There is no doubt that despite Spektor’s seemingly naive nature, Soviet Kitsch includes songwriting prowess that delivers lyrics that truly mirror human thought and behavior. Her insight, though, is juxtaposed with spontaneous, innocent and playful mannerisms that may supplement in a live show but only prove detrimental as listeners play the album multiple times. With Soviet Kitsch, songs at the onset seem fully original and revolutionary, but the more they are played, the more genre pretentiousness becomes apparent. Michael Idov, in a review for Pitchfork Media, summed up the aforementioned idea perfectly: “There’s a wealth of great material here … all diminished, to various degrees, by genre affectations. When Regina’s not belting Billie, she’s cooing Tori, or vamping up elastic Bronx vowels; although there’s no Russian accent to speak of, Spektor’s occasional Björk-isms compound the cuteness.”
Spektor is undoubtedly artistic. Her music encapsulates the wisdom of an old sage, the mannerisms of a 12-year-old girl and the dry wit of a cynical middle-aged woman. This is done all while showcasing obvious talent as a pianist and vocalist. Soviet Kitsch is an innovative album but presents problems in its ability to be played numerous times. The more one listens, the more similarities become apparent in supposedly unique songs to those of other artists, and the more Spektor’s facade of naivete grates on the listener. This is not to overlook Spektor’s true talent, though, which would probably be best seen at a live performance. Soviet Kitsch is a unique album that is worth checking out. Despite minor problems, the latest from Regina Spektor leaves audience members confident they are witnesses to an example of true creativity and artistry.