Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mixing the unmixable - Regina Spektor's "Soviet Kitsch"

Given my love of all things Russian, of many things Soviet, and of quite a few things kitsch, I was naturally thrilled to discover, when Fiona recommended to me some time ago that I listen to some Regina Spektor, that she not only had Russian roots but that he first album was in fact called Soviet Kitsch. I bought it straight away, listened to it within the hour, but for some reason am only getting around to writing about it now, some months later.

'Kitsch' is perhaps a bit of a tongue-in-cheek word for an album like this, full of anti-folk songs that in different ways turn up their nose at the shallow world of the comfortable classes and instead show more raw portraits of rougher lives.

Songs like ‘Ode to divorce’ and ‘Carbon monoxide’ set the mood for the album pretty early – showing Spektor’s ability to move from the soft to the gutsy, the slow to the fast, the smooth to the rough, without hardly taking a breath, often against bare piano accompaniment and in songs that have rough and ready melody lines that are turned into music, more than any thing else, simply by the way she sings them in her beautiful, but no-nonsense, voice.

But nothing does what you expect it to. Like the ‘The Flowers’ – an anguished song about holding onto a past that has already gone, with an intensely wailing voice, with a stunning Schubertesque piano accompaniment that somehow changes, unexpectedly near the end, into a jaunty Russian dance.

The album is full of strange juxtapositions like this – between songs and within them. There’s the almost punk screaming and screeching of ‘Your Honor’, with its sudden little childlike interlude to the words, “Gargle with peroxide a steak for your eye/but I’m a vegetarian so it’s a frozen pizza pie”. Everywhere things seem to go off in weird directions, just when you think a song has settled into its own (already quirky) groove. The last person who I knew to mix the unmixable so well was Gustav Mahler.

There’s an almost stream-of-consciousness feel to these songs – their music as much as their lyrics – and that can always jar a bit when we have become so used to music capturing a mood, or an idea, and holding onto it. But here nothing stays in the one place for long, and nothing is comfortable.

It takes a bit of getting used to – but if you don’t approach Soviet Kitsch expecting it to sound easy and straightforward, but more like the music of a woman who was classically trained in Russia and then spent the rest of her life amongst America’s underground music scene, you’ll find an album that takes you deep into the mind of someone who knows that nothing is really here to stay and who looks at it all with more than just a hint of scorn.

But even when there’s a cello there as in ‘Ode to Divorce’, or a string quartet as in ‘Us’, or, for that matter, a stick banging on a bit of wood, as in ‘Poor little rich boy’, these songs all somehow have the feel of the cabaret about them – someone sitting at the piano, singing to you their most intimate observations of the world, while you sip your brandy (or, of course, your vodka).

And at times the utterly unaffected unfiltered frankness of these songs makes you think that maybe, when all is said and done, you’re the one who is just a little bit kitsch. I guess the Soviets had a knack of turning things around like that – and maybe sometimes that wasn’t an entirely bad thing to do.

Belated thanks to Fiona for introducing me to Regina Spektor.

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