On Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor treads a delicate balance between her anti-folk past and her present home on Sire Records. Though the label re-released Soviet Kitsch in 2004, Begin to Hope is Spektor's first original material for Sire, and it feels more like a major-label debut than Soviet Kitsch ever did. The album's big, glossy production and ...
On Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor treads a delicate balance between her anti-folk past and her present home on Sire Records. Though the label re-released Soviet Kitsch in 2004, Begin to Hope is Spektor's first original material for Sire, and it feels more like a major-label debut than Soviet Kitsch ever did. The album's big, glossy production and preponderance of drum machines and keyboards inches Spektor toward territory that isn't exactly mainstream, but is closer to a more conventional adult alternative singer/songwriter sound. Her songwriting mirrors this, too: "Field Below," which finds her wishing for the countryside while living in the city, has a mellow, appealingly rambling vibe that grows from the traditional singer/songwriter roots of Joni and Carole; "Better" takes the breathy, literate, pretty side of Spektor's music and tailors it into a radio-friendly single. "On the Radio" takes it a step further and becomes a smart, funny, and sad meta-single, with lyrics like "We listened to it twice/Because the DJ was asleep" backed by poppy synths and beats. But even though Begin to Hope's first few songs might suggest otherwise, Spektor is much too freewheeling and quirky a talent to stick to the straight and narrow for the entirety. Show tunes, classic soul, the Bible, and the backs of cereal boxes are all inspirations for the album. And whether she quotes the melody from Doris Payne's "Just One Look" and pairs it with lyrics about orca whales on "Hotel Song," or begins the lovely, confessional closing track, "Summer in the City," with the line "summer in the city means cleavage," Spektor uses them in unexpected ways. She also places some truly surreal, heady tracks toward Begin to Hope's end: "Lady" is a torchy number arranged for piano, saxophone, and typewriter, while "20 Years of Snow" is buoyed along by impressionistic keyboards that twinkle and tumble like a just-shaken snow globe. "Apres Moi," one of the album's most impressive tracks, showcases her classical piano training, her Russian heritage, and those biblical influences to ominous, paranoid effect. Leaving the more unique, quintessentially Regina Spektor-esque tracks at the end of Begin to Hope isn't so much a bait-and-switch as is a clever way to lure in and loosen the inhibitions of new fans. The album feels like getting to really know someone: at first, it's polite and a little restrained, but then its real personality, with all of its charming idiosyncrasies, finally reveals itself. [Hardcore Regina fans will want to get the version of Begin to Hope that comes with a bonus CD of tracks from her U.K. EPs and studio versions of songs like "Uh-Merica" and "Dusseldorf."] ~ Heather Phares, Rovi