Regina Spektor has gotten the short end of the stick in terms of early 2000’s indie. While her contemporaries like Amanda Palmer and Fiona Apple have developed a ride-or-die fanbase, Spektor is probably best known today for… writing the theme song for Orange Is the New Black? Don’t get me wrong, that theme song is one of the best things about an already good show, but there is so much more to Spektor’s music than just a killer pop song, so let’s look at one of her weirdest and most endearing albums “Soviet Kitsch.”
“Soviet Kitsch,” is, at its heart, a set of piano ballads. A simple form that makes an excellent showcase for just how freaking strange this woman is. She grunts, coos, belts, oohs, and ahs her way through almost every song on the tracklist, weaving these vocal ticks in with melodies organically to entrancing effect.
Her skills as a pianist are equally singular (indulge this classical piano-loving nerd for a moment if you will). She plays the usual notes of her songs in the most unusual of ways. The chords form familiar progressions, but she accentuates them with unexpected dynamic changes and staccato hits on off beats. The notes come not as a smooth melody, but as a flurry, unlocking the percussive potential of her instrument in ways Fiona Apple wouldn’t until last year.
However, for all its musical strengths, the true value of Soviet Kitsch is in the lyrics. Spektor takes her background as a Russian immigrant as a perspective, not subject matter. She frames familiar topics from the unique Eastern-bloc worldview that will be familiar to anyone who has had an extended conversation with an older Russian person. Social issues we think of as trite and incomprehensible- refusing treatment for cancer, nostalgia for a long-gone political order- are portrayed empathetically, though not always flatteringly, by a woman caught between two worlds. The lyrics find old ways of saying new things; classical forms used for subversive ends.