It’s not that Regina Spektor is struggling, goodness knows. She records for a major label, her albums sell well worldwide, and her songs regularly get licensed to movies and television. But new chanteuses keep popping up to steal her spotlight: some as quirky as Spektor, and some as virtuosic, but none as singular. And after 2009’s Far—a mostly good album that sometimes lost the plot in its attempt to be both mainstream and odd—Spektor seemed in danger of becoming formulaic, and thus too easily ignored. She was on the path to being tagged as just another talented singer-songwriter with a weird streak.
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats isn’t a major departure for Spektor, but it’s generally more comfortable in its eccentricity than Far. It’s more like 2006’s Begin To Hope in the way it integrates Spektor’s wilder, more Kate Bush and Björk-like impulses into snappy piano-driven pop. Spektor works lines from The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” into the loopy Italiano anthem “Oh Marcello,” hums the main riff from War’s “Low Rider” during the coda of “Patron Saint,” and gasps like a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner during the otherwise gentle and heartfelt “Open.” Spektor’s world is full of surprises, typified by album-opener “Small Town Moon,” which begins as a relaxed piano ballad and then explodes into a big beat and clapping, while Spektor whoops and half-scats lines like, “Everybody not so nice-nice.” Then “Small Town Moon” ends with Spektor quietly asking, “How can I leave without hurting everyone who made me?,” re-grounding the song in earnest sentiment.
Spektor still has some trouble assembling all her ideas into a cohesive album; What We Saw From The Cheap Seats takes a sort of “well, here’s another song” approach, all the way up to the sweet but anticlimactic closer, “Jessica.” But there’s not a weak track on the record, and there’s something arresting in each song, from the dramatic Thomas Dolby-style electronic drum sound at the start of “All The Rowboats” to Spektor imitating a passing parade with her lips on “The Party.” And none of it would be as meaningful if Spektor didn’t keep returning to the simplicity of songs like “Firewood” and “How,” where she relies primarily on her big, rangy voice, and the honest expression of what it would mean, “to hear your voice, to see your face.”