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Thursday, February 21, 2008
Regina Spektor: From Russia With Love

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.

"When we write something, we have not coughed up the moon, whose origins might then be investigated. Rather, we have moved to the moon with everything we have." -- Franz Kafka to Max Brod (April 1918)

You know Regina Spektor, already, right? She's a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to the United States when she was nine from Russia -- where she was a classical pianist. She attended a Modern Orthodox high school; SAR Academy in Riverdale (where apparently she was in the same class as my friend's sister's friend -- Jewish geography triumphant). According to an NPR interview, she became interested in songwriting while on an arts trip in Israel.

"We were hiking through the Negev desert, and I'm not much of a hiker. I'm a city girl. So it's really hard," she explains, her words full of laughter. "To help myself get through it, I'd sing little songs and make them up. And kids would kind of hike closer and closer to me, then in the evenings they'd be like, 'Oh, can you sing that one again?'"

In 2003 the Strokes brought Spektor to open for them on the road, and later on the tour she blew up big with her freak-folk fantastic Soviet Kitsch — songs like "Poor Little Rich Boy" and "Us." Lyrics like, "We're living in a den of thieves / Rummaging for answers in the pages," and "They made a statue of us / Our noses have begun to rust," like the pop music equivalent of Jonathan Safran Foer, or Michael Chabon — or maybe more like Hans Christian Anderson, or Marie de France, or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

You know Franz Kafka too. Gaunt looking Prague-born Jew, 20th century author of surrealistic works that contend with a fractured, pained world. Blew up big postmortem with a bunch of half-finished, stone-cold genius novels, and completed absolutely-brain-shattering short fiction. He's famous for short fiction like The Metamorphosis and books like The Trial. His texts have lyrics like "Once, just in front of him, he thought he could see the statue of a saint by the glitter of the silver on it, although it quickly disappeared back into the darkness."

So now that we've established that we know the difference between Miss Spektor and Kafka, let me state this in the most emphatic of tones: Regina Spektor is Frank Kafka. I don't just mean they both have artistic concerns with statues (and freakiness and the mundane turned unique), though they both do. I mean that what makes Kafka spectacular -- his sense of humor, his absurdity that quickly turns to chiding mockery, the way that the unknown looms over his words like a steroids-pumped muscle-bound man wandering through darkened city streets -- is what makes Spektor spectacular.

The first single off her 2006 breakthrough album Begin to Hope, "Fidelity" quickly shifts from the heartbreaking softly sung "Suppose I kept on singing love songs just to break my own fall," to the mock-inflicted "All my friends say that of course it's gonna get better" within the space of ten seconds. On the first, she sounds like she is about to cry. The second is full of jabbering, a mouth-full-of-laughter repetition of betta'. As if behind every heartbreak song are the jaws of the surreal.

On "Samson," where Spektor cribs from the Biblical story, she sings, "Samson went back to bed / Not much hair left on his head. / He ate a slice of wonder bread and went right back to bed / And history books forgot about us and the Bible didn't mention us," turning the tale into a story of simple, halting domesticity -- "Your hair was long when we first met." On "Hotel Song," Spektor "dreams of orca whales and owls," but she "wakes up in fear."

There is little point trying to interrogate Spektor's songs, hoping that they will give something up in the investigation. Parsing her orca whales is much like trying to figure out what is really inside Kafka's Castle. The point is the journey into something surreal and absurd -- a world where the truths of life are written on the back of cereal boxes ("That Time") and corner street societies validate your sorrows ("Lady").

And if you're lucky, when Spektor moves to the moon with everything she has, next time, she'll even let you come with her.

--Text by Mordechai Shinefield / Photo by Chris Crisman

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.
posted by Benyamin | 5:40 PM | Link | |
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