Regina Spektor songs typically either leave you weeping in the fetal position or running for the door. The Russian-born NYC singer-songwriter just has that effect on people: She’s a skilled pianist with an undeniably beautiful voice, which soars through grand melodic patterns with the ease of an opera singer; her songs are heartfelt and colorful, filled with offbeat and affecting metaphors and quirky sonic detours. At her worst, she’s also pretentious and borderline excruciating, reveling in a particularly over-cute brand of seasick whimsy—one that treats every cracked vocal hiccup and silly accent like a theatrical debut.
Her sixth studio album, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, is all of those things at once. A good example is “Oh Marcello,” a dizzying, soulful wash of electric piano, beatboxing and borrowed lyrics (Nina Simone’s “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) that’s either some sort of masterpiece or a complete and total disaster. Far easier to love is “Don’t Leave Me,” a peppy pop gem laced with bold horns and a crisp, fluid rhythm section.
Unfortunately, What We Saw is heavy on overlong ballads, and when she adds that trademark whimsy to the mix, it’s nearly unbearable: The dark “Ballad of a Politician” is musically rich, but hearing Spektor sing “Shake it, shake it, baby; shake your ass out on that street” with a straight face is just plain awkward, regardless of thematic context. Meanwhile, the funeral march “The Party” makes two-and-a-half minutes feel like a century, and when she obnoxiously cracks, “You taste like birthday,” it would be a low-point if not for the ill-fated mouth-trumpet solo that shortly follows. Rarely is such legitimate talent obscured, or simply wasted.