REGINA SPEKTOR at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Wednesday (April 6). $10. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
Regina Spektor got her sea legs playing coffee house shows in the self-consciously whimsical ranks of NYC's anti-folk scene, but don't hold that against her. She grew up in Moscow as a classically trained prodigy who used to scribble on the backs of Mozart and Rachmaninoff manuscripts and practised religiously in synagogue basements while fantasizing that she'd grow up to be a great concert pianist.
Spektor's cabaret-inflected songs have a discipline and sophistication that puts her light-years ahead of the cutesy plunking of her peers. And though she was exposed to more and more Western pop music after she moved to the Bronx with her family at age nine (the Spektor clan fled because practising Judaism under Communism was a big no-no), the 26-year-old writes lyrics that have more in common with the sly allegory of old-time storytellers and arch political protest folk than with the dopey stoner humour of the Moldy Peaches.
She still feels a connection to something akin to a Communist aesthetic.
"Communism has a certain look and sound," she says. "I remember walking down the street in Barcelona and hearing in the distance what sounded like Soviet music, and when I walked toward the sound, I stumbled upon a socialist march. Or sometimes I'll find children's books or even towels in Chinatown, and right away I recognize that aesthetic. I definitely know that it's just in me, even if I'm not conscious of it."
But she says the music that hit her the hardest in her homeland was by a bard singer named Vladimir Vysotsky, who was also a great actor.
"He played a mean Russian Hamlet," giggles Spektor. "He could be really eloquent and poetic, but he was terribly crude as well. He had a huge range and this understanding of human suffering. He died very young after struggling with alcoholism.
"He wrote a lot of songs about the first world war," she continues, "which was amazing because he was young and never fought in the war. But he was able to capture the perspective of soldiers and nurses in such a vivid and true way, you felt like he was actually there. He'd even get letters from veterans who were convinced he'd served in their battalion."
Spektor's latest Soviet Kitsch disc originally dropped independently a while back, but was recently treated to a proper bells-and-whistles major-label release by Warner Brothers, complete with an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. While the songs may not be about troops in the trenches, the charming singer/songwriter does have a similar knack for getting into the heads of quirky and often abstract characters in unexpected ways.
The sing-songy Poor Little Rich Boy is a satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek indictment of the sort of Choate-schooled trust-fund hipsters who feel sorry for themselves while reading canonical misogynists like Hemingway in rundown cafés. Ode To Divorce captures the hopeless desperation of the shittiest breakups by comparing spurned lovers with panhandlers, and the brash, boozy Sailor Song finds Spektor outdoing Martha Wainwright in the potty-mouthed dame category as she spits, "Marianne's a bitch!" with a saloon-style piano-bashing swagger.
Spektor's effortlessly literate avoidance of the gooey clichés of love songs and moon-eyed mopey balladry sets her apart from the artists to whom she most frequently gets compared: Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and the awkwardly precocious Nellie McKay, all women who share Spektor's affinity for undulating keyboard fills and occasionally affected girlish vocals.
Save for one ballsy, hook-laden foray into rawk 'n' roll, Soviet Kitsch adheres quite closely to that piano-pop template, so anyone who checks out the album credits will probably be shocked to find Gordon Raphael, the man responsible for the Strokes' Is This It and Room On Fire discs, listed as a main producer.
Spektor, who moved from playing coffee houses to stadiums of frat-boy fans when she opened for the Strokes on tour, is quick to emphasize that Raphael and right-hand man Alan Bezozi actually co-produced Soviet Kitsch.
"It was really painful to learn how to work with people. I'm a complete micro-manager and control freak. I wrote every single string part and stuff, but I'd listen to other people's ideas if they worked.
"A lot of times, people who produce things for me end up being engineers and keep me from doing really damaging things like destroying stuff I've recorded. If I didn't have them around, I'd probably trash everything, cuz I'm such a perfectionist."