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Regina Spektor
Begin To Hope

My friend Dennis really likes Regina Spektor. A lot. He espouses her greatness to one and all. Ask him where he first heard her, and he'll tell you the following tale: "It all began about a year ago when I was listening to 88.9FM KRFC…" Always a champion of our local community radio station, he'll go on to explain how they played "Ghost of Corporate Future" (a track from Soviet Kitsch) and he was immediately hooked. So hooked, in fact, that he went out and bought the album that afternoon. Would but all fans share his zeal, the world would no doubt be a better place. And so, I dedicate this review to him.

Begin to Hope comes in numerous formats: plain album, special edition (with bonus disc), and extra-special iTunes-only edition. Naturally, Dennis has them all. He's even come up with a systematic listening approach — one chunk at a time in order to glean discrete impressions of intended impact. Sounds like a good plan, so I'll follow suit.

* * *

The Album

By the time Begin to Hope's first beat comes booming out of the speakers, it is clear that something is different. This is a trunk-rattling pop album. "Where did the piano go?" you ask incredulously. "Change makes me uncomfortable; I want Regina's music to stay the same!" If you were some sort of simpleton, unappreciative of artistic growth, I can imagine that you would have said something along those lines. Thank goodness simpletons don't read these music reviews.

Synth-strings and beats abound on "Fidelity." Anthemic-rock guitars chug-a-lug along with a drumkit on "Better." "What's next?" shriek the fearful faithful. Luckily for the piano-loving holdouts, "Samson" comes next. This modern-day Samson and Delilah tale first appeared on her 2002 album, Songs, but at a slower tempo. Though you might be inclined to equate "faster" with "less heartfelt," not so in this case; the redux is still given the tender treatment it deserves. "On the Radio" is yet another pop gem, replete with "Fidelity"-like synthesizer flourishes.

Any of the first four songs would sound at home on mainstream radio. I know that probably sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it's meant as praise. These songs are brilliant examples of pop's potential, showcasing an uncanny intuition for melody. In fact, there are moments on Begin to Hope when it almost feels as if someone dared her: "I bet you can't make an album that'll get radio play." Ms. Spektor lays waste to such theories; whether or not it actually gets much airplay remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the potential is there and she has done her part.

After the first four tracks, things expand a little farther beyond the traditional pop palette. Vocal quirks begin asserting themselves more strongly. For instance, "Field Below," which at points exhibits melodic similarities to "Bridge Over Troubled Water," ends with the lyric repetition of an increasingly bewildered "I’m awake and feel the ache." In "Après Moi" there is an "ooof" sort of sound interjected into the middle of the chorus. What's more, the song features an entire verse in Russian — that's not something you normally hear on a pop record.

It's not just vocal stylings that begin to diverge. Lyrics dip more into the surreal. In "Hotel" she sings "I have dreams of orca whales and owls, but I wake up in fear." Unexpected, absurdist symbology for a song about a hotel love affair. What's most amazing, throughout the course of her lyrical excursions, is the delivery — blending childlike innocence and wry, observationalist humor has always been a hallmark of her work. And she hasn't abandoned those quirks on Begin to Hope.

"20 Years of Snow" features what might be the most daring arrangement on the album. Mind-bending whole-tone scales. Impressionist harmonies and textures. All interrupted by a hip-hop interlude. Craziness. Crazier still is Spektor's ability to abruptly smash disparate elements together and make the transition sound natural and unforced.

"Summer in the City" is Begin to Hope's heartbreaking coda. It serves as a mirror to "Fidelity," bringing the album full circle. Where "Fidelity" lamented the musician's inability to hold onto love due to internal creative processes, "Summer in the City" shows how that same person is still susceptible to heartbreak. Self-inflicted heartbreak is heartbreak nonetheless. Even though the song is about loneliness, there are several lines designed for smiles like: "Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage…" or "I went to a protest just to rub up against strangers." Towards the end, she even says: "Don't get me wrong, dear, in general, I'm doing quite fine." This keep-your-chin-up optimism makes the underlying sadness all the more acute. And so, the words "Begin to Hope" take on a new meaning: instead of a declarative statement, it becomes an imploration.

By the time the album's last notes sound, it's clear that in fact, despite what detractors would have you believe, nothing has really changed at all. If naysayers can't get past the sheen of spiced-up production, it's their loss. Regina Spektor is still a singular voice, no matter the instrumentation surrounding her.

The Bonus Disc

The five songs appearing on the bonus disc, due to their stripped-down, piano-reliant arrangements, are more in keeping with her previous work. "Baobabs" draws inspiration from The Little Prince and applies those ideas to contemporary society. "Dusseldorf" is a journey of self-discovery, as related by a tour of various European locales. At one point, there is even a self-referencing line about Soviet Kitsch. Instead of falling into the trap of heavy-handed self-awareness, Regina merely flits along casually to the next stanza. It's indicative of the bonus disc as a whole: delivered with a light touch, yet effective as ever.

The iTunes-only Tracks

(Before I comment on the music, I'd like to reprimand the person who thought this was a good idea. These tracks are only available on iTunes if you buy the entire album. Never mind the fans who bought the hard copy. Nay, even the ones who pre-ordered the special edition were left wanting. This is ridiculous. Luckily for Dennis, there are some kind souls out on the great digital hinterland willing to share. Two illicit copies of the MP3s later, he in turn shared them with me so I could review the entirety that is Begin to Hope. So, if bigwig lawyers are reading, just send me an email, and I'll be glad to provide Dennis' contact information.)

"Hero" and "Bartender" are the two iTunes songs, and they function like conjoined twins, one flowing right into the other. As with the bonus disc, these are piano-only songs. And similarly, they hold up quite well to scrutiny. (I won't lie — I'm a big fan of multi-part songs, so it was nice to see Regina dabbling with the format.)

* * *

Now reviewing recordings is all well and good, but this is an artist who needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Live, everything is exaggerated. Emphasis is subtly shifted. Just Regina, a piano, a chair, and a drumstick will win over even the harshest critics. And if it doesn't, they're probably just simpletons anyway.

by Sam Ernst

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