Album Reviews: Begin to Hope (Bonus CD) by Regina SpektorSometimes bigger is truly better, and it's difficult even for an indie snob to make the case for clinging to lo-fi upon hearing Regina Spektor's fabulous and full-sounding Begin to Hope, an album from an NYC anti-folk refugee that bears the stamp of a major label. That stamp, however, is only felt on the packaging; the insides are all Spektor's, and hers is a welcome perspective.
Her previous albums are strewn with various styles, most prominently coffeehouse humility and theatrical zeal (some would say overzeal). Begin to Hope is bad news for anyone hoping that she would peg herself definitively as a literary folkstress or an avant-garde woman-child with a piano. Instead, she proves herself to still be a little of both -- and a hell of a pop songwriter, too.
"Fidelity" starts the album with a piano line that is a friendly, well-mannered cousin to the one that kicks off Dr. Dre's "Still D.R.E." Spektor starts into a sweetly sung verse about how the music in her head breaks her heart, then emphasizes the point with a playful chorus that turns "heart" into a 14-syllable word. She's a master at this, making her vocals fit to the tone of her song while taking individual words and giving them personality lifts.
The rest of Begin to Hope is an engaging trip through ambitious orchestral drama ("Apres Moi") and tender character studies ("Samson"), through the experimental corners of chamber-pop ("20 Years of Snow") and driving radio singles with Strokes cameos ("Better"). "That Time" is the only straight misfire, built on a grating guitar riff and straining lyrically to surprise.
"On The Radio" is the standout, a perfectly poppy and accessible song that retains Spektor's adventurous sonic signature and features an especially brilliant and expressive vocal. In a short runtime, it also manages to tackle the big issues -- life, love, death -- in a manner that feels truthful and charming instead of heavy-handed.
Spektor closes with "Summer in the City," a simple piano ballad with fragile vocals about seasonal loneliness that combines memorable descriptions of urban isolation (she half-heartedly attends a protest just to lean on strangers) with an indomitable sense of humor ("Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage"). With about a minute remaining, there's a hint that she will finish with a big flourish, but instead she pulls back and signs off wistfully and quietly. Whether intended or not, it's a powerful choice, and proves that she is plenty captivating even at her most straightforward. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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