Monday 29 June 2009

Review: Far by Regina Spektor

I always worry when I'm writing a review of an album and I find myself saying 'tracks' instead of 'songs'.

Regina Spektor's new album, Far, has – I'm sorry to say – tracks.

So, this is how this is going to go.

First, I'm going to rant for a while about the production of this album. Then, once I'm puce and quivering, with dilated pupils and bubblettes of saliva flecking my lip, I'll take a subhead-break and write about the music. Because, dressed up as tracks though they may be, there are some lovely songs mewling and scrabbling, trapped within.

So let's rescue the poor critters.

But first…

Those of you who've followed Heavy Soil for a while will (I hope) realise that clever production techniques are very much Okay By Us. Heavy Soil certainly does not believe that all music should be lo-fi 4-track recordings of rattling plywood guitars and cheese-grater vocals captured by a Fisher Price microphone.

Because brilliant production makes Heavy Soil very happy.

But here's the problem with Far. Regina Spektor has worked, on this album, with people who are (no doubt) considered frigging top-notch arrangers. Frigging top-notch producers. Frigging top-notch session musicians. All the ingredients, one might suppose, of frigging top-notch production.

Indeed, Pitchfork, in its impressively wrong-headed review, has its own boringly brown-nosed paragraph lauding the skills of the 'four top-flight producers'.

Top-flight. Top-notch. Blah blah, lick lick, suck suck. Whatever.

All very well. But sometimes the top notch is smooth and symmetrical and perfectly machine-hewn.

Fucking boring, in other words. A big, smug, satisfied swot of a notch.

Sometimes, it's the top notch but one that we actually want.

Think about the old Regina song 'Poor Little Rich Boy': a left-hand piano line and a drumstick being lashed like a whip into a bar-stool. Name me one 'top-notch' arranger who'd think to do that.

No, they'd be too busy with their sumptuous string lines, telephoning their fellow top-notch arranger mates to brag about their wonderfully recherche brass section motifs.

You see, I don't want Regina Spektor's playing and arrangements to sound like Ben Folds + Tori Amos + Elton John + Fiona Apple. And I like all the aforementioned. But Regina plays piano in a totally different way. Not necessarily better. But different. So I don't want it to be dragged into line with the standard 'piano-based artist' sound.

Allow Heavy Soil to Let You Into A Secret

Because the thing with the big music industry is: it's enormously conservative. It far more reliably elevates those who perfect conventional arrangement/production than it does those who innovate. Regina Spektor is leagues more innovative than anybody she's worked with on this album. Leagues. And I don't care if I set a load of muso geeks and production obsessives flapping and whinging by saying it. I don't care how many great artists these people have worked with. Just like I don't care how many artists have banked at fucking HSBC.

Because, on Far, Regina Spektor has been tamed by a horde of collaborators whose talent is in no doubt, but whose influence is radically normalising.

And on this album, I see – clearly – the fingerprints of sweaty-palmed men who get off on the glossily sterile sound of a perfect hi-hat. Fetishistic production myopia. And, sure, the hi-hats kick ass. But in the same way as a trillion immaculately-processed hi-hats have kicked ass before.

And there's all this processed human beat-boxing. Regina is very, very good at her own (organic) brand of human beatbox. Listen to her doing it live and see what I mean. By using digital techniques to mimic this, her producers TOTALLY DESTROY THE POINT OF IT. Human beat box is all about imitating electronic percussion. So using electronic production techniques to imitate human beat box is staggeringly pointless. Perhaps somebody thought it was wittily ironic.

It's not. It's stupid.

And, on the subject of production techniques, another thing that really annoys: the fact that this record is mastered so loud that, at not-particularly-rare intervals, the music clips on my (120-pound) headphones. So the climactically loud parts are spoilt by those irritating hisses/rattles that occur when the volume has been pushed so hard that it actually overloads the speakers through which it's playing. This is massively, massively annoying. If I want my music louder, mastering-man, I'll sodding well turn up my volume. I don't need you raising the floor until my neck is bent 90 degrees and my head is pressed against the ceiling.

And, um – the good bits?

Okay, so I've been fairly down on the production, so far. In fact, there's some good stuff to say about it. Regina's voice is very nicely captured, sweet-toned and characterful. And, on some songs, the production is imaginative and colourful – 'Machine', for instance, in which industrial clunks and whirrs mesh with bit-crushed kit and treated vocals to good effect.

I'm still not convinced, mind, that I'd not have preferred it raw. But at least the production is taking the song somewhere, and doing it in an interesting, valid way. Even if it's spiritually pretty close to the (superior) 'Apres Moi' from Begin To Hope – crashingly Slavic chord sequence, hip-hop stylings and all.

But what if I imagine these were all acoustic recordings, shorn of glossy effects and processing? What, in other words, about the songs?

Some of them are very good indeed.

'Human of the Year' is probably the best. It's old-skool Regina – like 'Oedipus' (one of her very best), it is an embarrassment of thematic riches ... a song with about three potential choruses, none of which is milked to anything remotely approaching its capacity (meaning, to stretch a metaphor on my verbal rack, that instead of a pint of semi-skimmed, you end up with a few mouthfuls of Guernsey double cream.)

A pity, then, that somebody decided to whack in some wanky synths and gratuitous reverb (yes, I know the song mentions cathedrals. It's therefore the most fucking obvious production gimmick IN THE WORLD, EVER to add cathedral reverb onto the lead vocal. That's bloody Chris de Burgh territory, for Christ's sake).

Anyway, why don't you download an mp3 of Regina Spektor's Human of the Year and see if you agree with me?

Second track (yes, track) 'Eet', meanwhile, is enjoyable – though once again, I find myself unable to identify much in it that's not done at least as well in Begin To Hope (its equivalent on that record is probably 'On The Radio' – again, superior).

I'm not so convinced by the reggae-tinted album opening provided by 'The Calculation', which seems rather lite; nor by the frothy 'Folding Chair', which doesn't ever really transcend its (winkingly?) simplistic chord sequence. And, in all, I think there's less on this record that excites me from a songwriting point of view than on its predecessors. Of course, it's pretty hard to determine exactly to what degree this is down to production values that actively suppress pianistic innovation of the kind that's often my favourite aspect of Regina's music.

Then there are the vignettes. Take 'Genius Next Door'. Like others on the record, it's very affecting in places. But, to my ears, it doesn't especially benefit from the spangles of Disneyfication: reechoing reverb, glittering backing vocals, swooping strings. The vignette is more effective when dispensed casually. It lets a song shine (as this one should: it has a lovely melody) like an unexpected, unpolished pearl. Conversely, there's something about 'Big' production that endows songs like this with a grandiosity. Makes them seem as if they're Trying To Say Something. And I think that often undermines their power.

Have you noticed my problem, here, yet?

I try and write about the songs, but keep getting drawn back to the production. Because I really can't separate the two – so greatly does the latter seem to force its way into the former's territory.

If the songs on this album were to be released in a stripped-down, acoustic form, I suspect I'd gladly abandon in their favour all but two or three of these 'produced' versions.

But I suspect, too, that even then I'd not be calling 'Far' a triumph. Too many of these songs have their precedent in those on Begin To Hope – a record which far more successfully combined Big production with strong, original songwriting. Too few of them, taken as a whole, are exciting.


Dr Rosen Rosen said...

That's a pretty thorough review.

I haven't heard the entire album yet, but I agree with your general position.

Anonymous said...

Agree agree agree. Get rid of the producers, sit on the piano and press record. I prefer the live versions of these songs to the ones of the albums!! amandus

Mykuhl said...

Wow- I'm not sure I can agree much at all. I'm quite late getting this album, but I'm really loving it. I was interested in who had produced The Genus Next Door, because it was the best I'd heard her voice sounding, and I thought that the techniques used there actually added to the song. As far as song writing goes, she does a lot more story-telling in this album, giving it a very distinct flavour from the last two, where the story-telling songs were the exception rather than the rule.

I get your point about the instrumentation though, the strings are overdone in this album, and loses some of the rawness that Regina is so good at bringing.

chriscavalari said...

um, gulp, um, i think you're just a bit too critical, given the artist and her bag. don't get me wrong, begin to hope is her sargent pepper to me. but this is a good album, and it's a profound milestone, and it's a religious experience, don't forget. i agree, mastered too hot, but not only too hot, no one has to this day EQed her voice correctly, and that freaking voice - which is bassy, middy, and highy at once, therefore completely untamable, to this date anyway, studiowise - mixed with a freaking grand piano, which is of course throughout time bassy, middy, and highy - well it's always been a curse in her recording and studio endeavors. not that she hasn't often deluded the curse, and oedipus is a good example, and many of the old piano songs, lacrimosa, the list is big. but geez man, perhaps give the profundity level of the endeavor some validity in the balance? it certainly works, even with yes, these old goons tweaking nobs and making points with their purportedly 'old school' production. thing that bugs me a little, being a rabid fan, having seen her 4 times live now, the last being this album at radio city music hall, is the record has some songs with bass and guitar (i like led zeppelin, i like my BASS AND GUITAR) then she runs around the planet playing those songs with NO BASS OR GUITAR and this goddamn string section. but you know what?
she can do it. with all my critiques in my tiny little brain, she's done no wrong. she is so far above, as you pointed out, in innovativeness, pretty much anyone, whatever she does is
another canvas, and i'm going to look at it, and i'm going to enjoy it.

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