Regina Spektor

The most indelible image of Russian-American songstress Regina Spektor comes from the cover of her major label debut, Soviet Kitsch. Clad in a wife-beater and officer’s cap, Spektor knocks back a bottle of booze in a fit of jovial mischief while an army of Matryoshka souvenir dolls invades the corners of the visage. This emphatic persona—at once absurd, adorable and deviant—lent each song on the album a unique edge that, while belying the singer’s less than extraordinary songwriting, also hinted at the possibility of future greatness.

But after the delicate wounded romanticism of her follow-up, Begin to Hope, Spektor’s latest is a disappointment both lyrically and musically, despite production from ex-ELO member Jeff Lynne (and perhaps because of the extra efforts behind the boards of Mike Elizondo, the putative hit-maker who notoriously sucked all the life out of Jon Brion’s great Extraordinary Machine mix). On Far, the sultry and capricious Spektor of Soviet Kitsch is gone, her once volatile and deeply personal lyricism replaced by a sobering sub–Ben Folds grade populism. Throughout the album, the older (though evidently not wiser) Spektor spouts off tales of the disaffected and the damaged that are rarely nuanced or eloquent enough to elicit empathy or admiration for the hastily sketched characters within them.

When she’s not championing paper-thin protagonists, as on “Blue Lips” and “Genius Next Door,” Spektor asserts herself as a student of the Joan Osborne School of Oversimplified Theology. To wit: on the disastrous “Laughing With,” she goes to great lengths to anthropomorphize God by recounting all the great jokes he tells, while wrapping the human race in a drippy coat of sentimentality that is likely to rankle both believers and atheists. Granted, “Folding Chairs” proves that she hasn’t left her playful past behind entirely, but if recapturing her whimsical side means making dolphin noises over a kiddie faux-reggae beat that wouldn’t pass snuff on a Raffi album, perhaps she’s better off without it. Meanwhile, the album’s other token goofy song, “Dance Anthem of the 80’s,” forces so much calculated cuteness on the listener that one wonders if the charms of her past work were ever worth celebrating in the first place (akin to the way Christian Bale’s John Connor in Terminator: Salvation makes you wonder if his Bruce Wayne was really anything special).

Spektor still has a fantastic voice that can elevate the simplest vocal melody to stratospheric heights. But her humanism, while admirable, is spread too thin as she tells stories that strive for universality but lack the specificity to achieve any real or meaningful poignancy. Far’s clearest connection to Soviet Kitsch is the way its cover art once again acts as a cipher for determining the essence of the album. For here, Spektor is rendered as a pencil illustration sitting behind a giant blue piano. Fitting, since her songwriting has never been more artificial or distant.
David Holmes

God Help the Girl
God Help the Girl

Wow, Stuart Murdoch wrote a movie musical! What a fab idea! In this past Sunday’ New York Times Magazine, Stephen Rodrick suggests that this album will alienate hardcore Belle & Sebastian fans. I think Rodrick is completely off his rocker. Though there’s little on God Help the Girl that will surprise Murdoch devotees, the good news is that the execution is probably going to thrill fans of all sorts, shapes and sizes.

For those who’ve been missing Isobel Campbell, they’ll be pleased by Murdoch’s selection of Catherine Ireton (featured on nine tracks), whose timbre brings to mind the chanteusery of Yael Naim, Julie Delpy and Inara George. The rest of the album is sung by Murdoch himself with help from Asya, lead singer of the Seattle teenage indie band Smoosh, and Neil Hannon, of the Divine Comedy, as well as a few winners of an affiliated internet video contest.

For those who’ve enjoyed Murdoch’s latest, less sad-bastard tunes, they’ll be pleased by the heavy use of orchestral gestures (“Musician, Please Take Heed,” “Pretty Eve in the Tub”) and cheeky Burt Bacharachisms (“Act of the Apostle,” “Funny Little Frog”). Old school fans will be comforted by the tender moments of the title track as well as “I Just Want Your Jeans,” on which Asya goes it alone. And everyone who owns the canonical If Your Feeling Sinister will rejoice upon hearing “Come Monday Night” and “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie,” a perfect pair that combine the softhearted joys of Murdoch’s early songwriting with the fuller sound of his recent recordings.

In that same Times article, Murdoch talks a lot about his love of the French New Wave, and as he describes the plot of the eventual God Help the Girl movie, it’s clear he can’t help but emulate the era. Talking about the project he says, “This is my idea of a summer that never was.” I can’t come up with a better description for what this album feels and sounds like than that: the perfect soundtrack to a lost French film about a beautiful and sad, long lost summer.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Come Monday Night”

Wait for Me

Moby is a unique figure in the electronic music world. With the release of Everything Is Wrong in 1995, he was one of the few artists to move from the underground rave scene and into the mainstream during the “electronica” boom of the mid-90s. That record made him the American face for electronic music until things went bust. Then he managed an unlikely comeback with the inescapable Play. But when the follow-up, 18, sold considerably less, Moby seemed destined to be an artist who would slowly fade away. However, he has managed to have a pretty consistent recording career even though the champagne superstar days and his more inspired artistic days seemed long in the past.

So it came as some surprise that last year’s Last Night was a return to form, with Moby sounding more focused than he had been in years. And it comes as an even bigger surprise that he has another release a little more than a year later. The result of his newfound productivity is the melancholy Wait For Me. While Last Night was a love letter to New York nightlife, Wait For Me is made for the time when the clubs have closed and you’re sitting alone watching the sunrise.

While Moby is known for his genre jumping, placing a hardcore track next to a soaring house number and then wrapping it up with an epic ambient track, Wait For Me is consistently mellow in its sonic palate. Even when he does breakout the guitars, as on the Joy Division influenced “Mistake,” it’s in a very muted fashion. And smartly without a radio friendly single shoehorned in, the result is a very personal record.

While the focus away from the dancefloor may sound like a bad idea, given that. starting with “Animal Rights” up to “Hotel,” his forays into ambient have been exercises in industrial strength boredom, Moby finally figures out how to make it work. The record is sequenced as one larger piece, so when an instrumental comes before or after a vocal track both follow elements of the same musical idea. Hence, the instrumental songs may not make as much sense taken out of the context of the record, but they work very well as part of a thematic whole.

Wait For Me won’t be the record to push Moby back into the mainstream spotlight, but for those still paying attention, it shows that he still has good days ahead.
Dorian S. Ham

Depart from Me
Definitive Jux

Chris Palko is back, and he’s got new sounds. First off, his new flow has him sometimes sounding like Weezy in a darkened mirror—deeper, less slurred, but somehow just as whiny. Then there’s the production, which features a lot of live guitars and synths, crossing over from limp-metal scrunge to new wave shine and filling the gaps with plenty of doom and gloom.

I spent a long time wonder what the hell’s going on with Depart from Me ... until I figured out that Cage’s producer, Sean Martin, is the same Sean Martin who just left Hatebreed. Yes, do let that be a big clue. These are some of the ugliest beats on a Def Jux record in years. Sometimes, as on “Dr. Strong” and “Kick Rocks,” the drudgery fits the subject matter. More often than not, though, (especially on “Eating Its Way Out of Me”) you’ll find yourself wondering why Marilyn Manson decided to make a hip-hop album.

Cage’s best work on the album is exemplified by “Fat Kids Need an Anthem,” surely the track that’ll get the most attention. It’s great to hear a rap anthem that’s not about drugs, money, guns, women, or simple braggadocio. This one even has complex message. After wailing “I was a faaaat guuuuyyyy, I was a big fat guy,” Palko laments, “The worst part about it is that I was happier when I was fat and on drugs.” Ouch.

Most of the album’s moments of glory, however, are frustratingly brief. “I Found My Mind in CT” features a sharp, multi-layered beat that will definitely remind you of Radiohead now that I’ve mentioned it. But then Cage starts whining again, and the song gets pretty uninteresting pretty quickly. “I Lost It in Havertown” is more reminiscent of the shockingly good Hell's Winter, but he can’t keep himself from singing his way through the chorus, and for many rap fans that’ll be a deal-breaker. “Katie’s Song” most successfully brings the album’s many proclivities together: heavy guitars, a new-new-wave chorus, and articulate versus that feature his new drawl in spots but don’t let it get in the way. Most significantly, it’s first time on the album that Cage actually sounds like he’s enjoying himself. Alas, I fear the listener will be having a disappointingly similar experience.
Matt Slaybaugh

Collectible Escalator

The first time I saw Coffinberry was around 2002 in Akron, Ohio at the Lime Spider. It was four-on-the-floor basement rock: energetic guitars and interesting vocal melodies mixed with a slight nod to the weirdo Cleveland rock sound of the late ’70s. On this self-titled release, Coffinberry has actualized their sound, injecting some country reverb and lazy Lake Erie surfer vocals into the acid-rain rock of North Coast. It’s not hillbilly, but the guitars have acquired a little more drawl over the course of a few hundred beers. Maybe they’ve been listening to the Byrds, or maybe that’s just what happens in the band’s home base of Cleveland. It’s not always sunny and happy like the West Coast, but it’s not all gloom and rain like the East Coast. Ohio is in the middle, so it gets all the seasons, all the glumness and all the happy. The band shacked up at home and taped everything, which must have allowed for a level of comfort beyond anything that could come out of a by-the-hour studio. The drums are roomy, and the bass fills the gaps. The vocal melodies are challenging and experienced. Everything is so carefully recorded, it betrays Coffinberry’s love for what they do. It’s hard to predict what will happen next on the record. It could be slow and sparse like “Average,” or it could be fast and danceable like “Smashed on Honey.” Because of this varied pace, Coffinberry never gets boring or heavy-handed, and the band is completely cool and collected the length of the album. Coffinberry is additional proof that there’s much more to Cleveland rock music than that Hall of Fame.
Michael O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Long Story Short”