Regina Spektor’s buzzy new material gets a live New York test run

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Regina Spektor's latest album is out now (Michaelangelo Matos)
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“Let’s get all the ‘fucks’ out of the way!”

It was about two minutes to showtime last Thursday at Le Poisson Rouge, and for Regina Spektor, that meant airtime as well. It was a promotional concert, free to anyone who heard about it in time to snag a ticket via the Brown Paper Tickets website—which meant not very much time at all. (I was alerted by a publicity email.)

More importantly, the concert was streaming live on NPR’s website. That’s why Spektor had to get the “fucks” out in advance. (The show is not currently in the NPR archive, but is scheduled to appear there eventually.) Even in an age filled with ways to leapfrog those FCC rules—be it satellite radio, podcasts, or even old-fashioned cable TV—radio still reaches a lot of people, especially NPR, which has an unofficial demographic named for it. (Disclosure: I freelance for NPR.)

That demographic is Spektor’s as well. She’s 32, and Le Poisson Rouge was packed with men and (mostly) women about her age, which is also about the age people start putting away the more faddish things they did in their twenties and settle into life’s verities.

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Spektor’s music has traveled a similar path. A Russian émigré who moved to the States at age 9, her fifth album, What We Saw in the Cheap Seats, is being received as a major step forward. Joni Mitchell is coming up a lot in the reviews; the album’s second song, “Oh, Marcello!,” invites comparison with other greats by interpolating the hook line from the Animals/Nina Simone standard “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” into its chorus.

Basically, Spektor is now the poster woman for theatrically infused singer-songwriter pop rock of a kind that, in the course of her LPR performance, put me in the mind of—who else?—FILM CRIT HULK, the anonymous online writer who’s made a cult with enthusiastic and ambitious essays about film aesthetics (in the voice of the Incredible Hulk, and in all caps, naturally).

One piece from February in particular came to mind: “HULK vs. The War on Quirk,” which traces how Wes Anderson’s singular voice has been watered down by lesser films (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) that copy his tics without his heart. “What people may not seem to realize is that they don’t actually hate the quirk,” HULK wrote, (originally in all-caps, naturally). “They hate insincerity.”

Whatever things you can say about Regina Spektor, insincere isn’t one of them. She’s “quirky,” but in the sense that the music’s tics are clearly natural to her, demonstrations of a particular mind at work, not tacked on. This can be heard in everything from the big inhalation that punctuates “Open” to the concept of “All the Rowboats,” in which objects and paintings in museums come to life and try to escape. (Both are from the new album.) And the music has enough drive to subsume the odder parts, or maybe just assimilate them.

Spektor was being recorded for broadcast, all right—her drummer played behind Plexiglas baffles, the kind used in a studio to isolate the sound to prevent one instrument from bleeding into another’s microphone. Now, I worked at a club with two stages for three years and have been to many other shows besides, and I’ve never seen anything like that on a club stage before. (Neither had a handful of others I asked, all professionals.) From my vantage—far right of the stage, between the exit doors and the bar in back—the drummer looked like the ghost of Bob Ross, and the lyrics of “All the Rowboats” suddenly made more sense. My date suggested the drummer might actually be a ghost given the softness of his playing. Then again, he didn't need to be too loud, and Spektor didn't need any swears to draw attention. Her songs and her sincerity were all in place, and everyone in the world, after all, could hear them if they wanted to.