The first time I ever heard of the Russian-born singer-songwriter named Regina Spektor, I lied. I said I already knew about her. Pretty girls in bars who have a great sense of humor and better taste in music than you have a way of making you say things you really shouldn't.
I managed to survive the conversation, but just in case Ms. Spektor's name ever came up again, I did some research. It took a while for the playful eccentricities and production of her 2004 debut, Soviet Kitsch, to fully settle with me, but I soon realized Spektor's talent as a songwriter and a vocalist.
On Begin to Hope, Spektor's talents have been given a larger stage to play. David Kahne (Paul McCartney, Bangles) has provided her music with its best production yet, and although some may feel the intimacy of Spektor's music is lost in this newfound crispness, her voice and the songs' arrangements have a much more dynamic and present quality to them.
Opener "Fidelity" begins with the plucking of strings, spelling out the first few words of the paragraphs that are to come. Synthesizers fill some of the emptiness retained from her previous albums in the chorus, pulling her voice in so many directions but always rising upward. For a songwriter most comfortable behind a piano, it's a bold move to start an album with only a trace of that instrument.
Begin to Hope is more focused than Soviet Kitsch (I am far from the first to mention that album's bipolar quality), but it still feels like a wandering observation of interaction and emotion. Her use of language is as remarkable as ever. In "Samson," she makes what could easily be dismissed as a goofy reference to Wonder Bread before breaking into the beautiful line, "And the history books forgot about us/ And the Bible didn't mention us/ Not even once."
Begin to Hope has its highs and lows, but it is a journey worth taking. The talented and original Spektor leaves very little to be taken for granted in this realm of music, like writing radio-friendly pop songs with a razor blade. Sometimes she captures perfectly the beauty that can be devised from such an abstract approach; other times, the idiosyncrasies get caught up on the rising tide and are scattered without structure.
If you're looking for reasons to dislike Spektor, Begin to Hope provides a number of them. But her world view shines brightly enough to cast shadows over the album's faults.
Regina Spektor Web site: http://www.reginaspektor.com/
Sire Records Web site: http://www.sirerecords.com/
Streaming audio: http://www.myspace.com/reginaspektor
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