It's tempting to talk about Regina Spektor only in terms of her roots and influences. Born in Moscow to a Russian Jewish family that moved to the Bronx before she turned 10, Spektor has a conservatory background, a professed love for Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Björk, and Tom Waits, and a habit of sharing fans and stages with members of the burgeoning anti-folk scene. Once Spektor begins singing, however, those comparisons fall away, not because they're not evident or because she works in a style so singular that it denies comparisonthey are, and she doesn'tbut because she possesses such a commanding talent that it becomes hard to focus on those issues once the music starts.
Soviet Kitsch is Spektor's third album. Like its predecessors, it was self-released, then (unlike its predecessors) picked up for distribution by a major label. That might explain why so many oddities arrived intact. Spektor's songs tend to take strange turns halfway through, jutting off for a chorus or bridge that barely seems connected to what's come before, then circling back to make the connection clear. "Carbon Monoxide," for one, begins as a slow ballad, rides some nonsense syllables as it builds in intensity, then slowly comes back down. Spektor pulls off much the same trick with her lyrics, using acute angles to get at her song's emotional heart. The protagonist of "Ode To Divorce" confuses heartbreak with material need until only the words "Won't you help a brother out?" make sense.
The tracks all center around Spektor's voice and piano, even when others join the mix. Sometimes it's better when they don't; in spite of Soviet Kitsch's obvious ambitions to bring artistic adornment into pop songs, the only overly precious moment comes with "Your Honor," a song cut with the group Kill Kenada (credited simply as a "punk band"). Somehow, it's the punk touch and not the twittering piano that sounds like a frill. Spektor sounds most in control of her gifts when she's alone, especially on the haunting "Chemo Limo," a song about cancer, class, and the way some generations make it further than others; it's simultaneously darkly funny, redemptive, and haunted by death. Only the album's title doesn't make sense: At one point, Spektor turns a song about holding onto an ex-lover's dead flowers into a wrenching exercise, and somehow kitsch never enters the picture.