I hate Cursive. Don’t get me wrong – they were great when I saw them at CMJ Music Marathon last fall, and Tim Kasher seemed like a really interesting guy on “Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek.” But I hate Cursive.
Cursive, you see, was booked at the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night, the same night as Regina Spektor, which meant an early show and a shorter set for the Moscow-born, Bronx-raised piano prodigy, poetess and all-around musical whirling dervish. When the diminutive Spektor, dressed in a black top and red skirt, cooed into the microphone that she was about to play her last song after a little over an hour, I was sending mental bombs over Omaha, Neb.
Such is the effect a Regina Spektor concert has on people. More like a religious experience than a show, people cannot possibly be expected to think or speak rationally in its afterglow (a friend who saw her for the first time this summer declared that seeing her was the reason she was born and that it was all downhill from there), which is problematic for someone trying to write a review.
Spektor emerged on-stage to deafening applause and the realization that yes, this was a completely sold-out show. For anyone who saw her two years ago, playing for about 50 people while opening for someone else at Black Cat, the scene was wonderfully surreal. After what seemed liked an eternity, Spektor finally broke through the howling with “Ain’t No Cover,” a track that everyone there seemed to know despite the fact that it came off a relatively obscure live record.
Her vocals twisted this way and that, and the audience followed breathlessly, setting the tone for the entire evening. She played piano, and accompanied one song with a drumstick keeping time, but the audience’s rapturous attention was trained on her voice all night. Singing, crying, squeaking, ululating – anything and everything came out of her mouth Tuesday night, soft and deliberate and beautiful each time.
With a voice like that, the lyrics don’t matter so much – “Apr?s Moi” features a poem by Boris Pasternak at the end, and no one seemed to notice it wasn’t in English – but if you bothered to listen closely, you were treated to a display of the tragic and the hilarious in tales populated by F. Scott Fitzgerald, baby Jesus and a never-ending coterie of city-dwellers with their clothes ripped and their hearts on fire.
This year’s “Begin to Hope” is Spektor’s fourth studio album, but the term “studio” is a bit misleading. “11:11” was given such limited release that it’s now out of print, “Songs” was recorded in the course of a single day and “Soviet Kitsch” was self-distributed before Spektor got signed to Sire and Warner Brothers re-released it. Because of such humble beginnings, Spektor’s fans are a bit protective, and “Begin to Hope” is a polarizing record. “Polarizing” is a funny word to use when talking about an artist that most of America doesn’t know, but it’s accurate; it’s just that the population being polarized is small – say, the 50 or so people who saw her at Black Cat, extrapolated across the country.
There was reason to worry. The record was produced by David Kahne, whom you might know as the record executive at Reprise Records who rejected Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and in doing so became the archvillain in the most compelling piece of rock and roll mythology of the past decade. There are multiple instruments on the record, instead of just the familiar piano. And oh my God, are those double-tracked vocals? Christ, this record was actually produced. The vultures began to swarm.
Unless you’re an indie rock reactionary, though, there was no reason to. I mean, I get it, I do – with an artist like this, people “discover” the music and then keen and lament when they become popular. There’s a very real feeling of possession involved here, and a sadness that someone as good as Spektor will never be “ours” again.
Screw that. The record is great, and I want Spektor to become enormous. I want her to out-sell Beyonc?.
I want to hear people talk about how they’re sick of her stuff because the radio is overplaying “Field Below.”
Of course, I also want peace on Earth and a magical unicorn. I’ll settle for a world where Regina Spektor can sell out the 9:30 Club, though. The record and the show are both just bigger than previous efforts, and that’s okay – it demonstrates growth, which is what we should be seeking. For the first time, Spektor was given actual studio resources to do what she wanted, and the results are grand in scale, if a little different from her previous exercises in minimalism. This distinction was brought to bear on the concert about halfway through, when she brought out a band to accompany her on some of her newer material. Although the drummer looked (and acted) like an extra from MTV Spring Break circa 1995, the three-piece outfit really fleshed out the new record, giving depth to a song like showstopper “On the Radio,” which flowered into an unlikely power anthem before our eyes.
Spektor knew when to play to her strengths, though, and left her most delicate songs unadorned. Before bringing the band back out to close the night with the rousing “Hotel Song,” Spektor did an encore that included “Us,” her most well-known song, and “Samson,” her most beautiful. Even in a club packed to the gills, when she sang the modern adaptation of the Biblical tale – it begins “You are my sweetest downfall, I loved you first,” and only gets more gorgeously heart- wrenching from there – one couldn’t help feeling like the only other person in the room, an audience of one. That’s pretty good, even if there were 1,200 audiences of one instead of just 50.