Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope
by Matthue Roth
I don’t want to say this prematurely — and I definitely don’t want to rush into things — but I think I found my new Tori Amos.
Look. My *old* Tori Amos wasn’t even Tori. It’s not a crush, or, at least, not mostly; it’s more a serach to find a soundtrack for my life. For the longest time it was R.E.M., replaced in 1991 — my Bar Mitzvah year — by Tori, who understood what it was like to not fit inand to not have anyone else who Really Understood. Fast forward a few years, and the role was replaced by Ani DiFranco, who was less abstract than Tori, and less self-involved, and also she was less alienated and more angry — which pretty much reflected exactly what I was feeling.
And then Ani got self-reflective and abstract. She abandoned choruses. She started writing political songs about Palestine, a cause I can’t exactly jive with, especially since it didn’t really feel like she knew much about the Israel-Palestine conflict beyond reading a few of Hamas’s more literate press releases. But the real clincher was that it felt like she stopped writing from the heart — she stopped writing about what really mattered.
Regina Spektor, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, weaned and nurtured by the Lower East Side’s hipper-than-thou antifolk scene, shouldn’t be able to lay claim to my heart. I deny all that is pretentious or overly laden with baggage or just lags, musically. But Spektor is none of these things. She uses cute, minimalist hip-hop beats that are either going to annoy you or you’ll love the hell out of them. She’s actually younger than me—born in Moscow in 1980 to an amateur violinist and a professional music teacher, she started playing piano early on…and, unlike most aspiring prepubescent musicians, she never stopped.
Spektor was brought up almost exclusively on classical music. Seeking religious and political freedom, her parents emigrated to America, and Regina was educated in the yeshiva system, switching to public school in tenth grade and discovering punk rock and hip-hop. Along with her newfound interests, her piano playing took on a more varied tenor, and she started writing pop songs.
On the brilliant “Begin to Hope,” her major-label debut, Spektor’smusic is a study in understatement. The lead-off song, “Fidelity,” blends her piano with delicate drum-machine beats and a whispery string section, undeniably bubblegum, but just as undeniably thoughtful. It’s a love song to music and to the passion of being alone: “I hear in my mind all this music…and it breaks my heart,” she finishes the chorus cheerfully, playing with the words into the microphone over and over again. Her voice cracks, jumps, and segues through the words, sounding so happy that we’re not sure whether she’s crying for joy or just crying.
The rest of “Hope” follows in “Fidelity’s” triumphant mode, bouncing between high-culture allusions and airy, stream of consciousness, say-anything songs, the kind worthy of being called “ditties.” In “Aprês Moi,” Spektor sings in highfalutin French, singing so hard through her nose that it feels like a Paris accent, and then switches—midsentence—to Russian. It’s a conjugation of high and low cultures, ducking our expectations and giving pretentiousness a sly wink. Some of Spektor’s longtime fans have decried the accessibility of “Hope,” but Regina Spektor has always existed with equal amounts of bad-assedness and cuteness. When she sings nostalgically of finding a human tooth on Delancey Street, and three lines later revels in the beauty of tangerines (“So cheap and JOOcy!”) she’s not compromising anything—she’s just being Regina.