Recording of October 2009: Far

Regina Spektor: Far
Sire 519396-2 (CD). 2009. Mike Elizondo, Jeff Lynne, Jacknife Lee, David Kahne, prods.; Adam Hawkins, Marc Mann, Steve Jay, Tom McFall, engs. AAD? TT: 47:21
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

Sounding adorable and singing in a little-girl voice while aspiring to be taken seriously as a confident, capricious pop artist is a singular blend in the vast expanse of popular music, one that singer-pianist-songwriter Regina Spektor has nearly perfected on her third album, Far.

Nowhere is the range of Spektor's woman-child vision more apparent than in Far's best pair of tunes. In "Folding Chair," after a quiet opening of stark, churchy piano chords, Spektor launches into an almost comical, left-foot/right-foot, carousel-like melody that then gives way to a pounding chorus of "ooooh, ooooh, ooooh" that, in its third repetition, and to the same music and rhythms, unexpectedly changes to Spektor gamely imitating, with gulping, childlike enthusiasm, the noises she imagines that dolphins make. Think of a baritone Flipper and you're in the neighborhood.

Two songs later, in "Laughing With," Spektor's voice, which may be at its most appealing when she makes it quiet and whispery, wades in deep and takes on G-O-D in some of the finest lyrics she's ever written. They're unsettlingly serious ("No one laughs at God / on a day they realize that the last sight they'll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes"), as well as silly yet even more lyrically clever: "God could be funny / when told he'll give you money / if you just pray the right way / and when presented like a Genie / who does magic like Houdini / or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus / god can be so hilarious."

Far's first two tunes, "The Calculation" and "Eet," are a microcosm of Spektor's current strengths and future uncertainties. In the first, the piano part harks back to the Beatles' mannered, "Blackbird" pop side, and though she swings into and out of falsetto in thrilling leaps, the pouty tone Spektor adopts in the final word of the following quatrain makes you wonder how much longer she can make the teenage-sex-kitten vibe work in her favor: "So we made the hard decisions / and we made an incision / past our muscles and our bones / saw our hearts were little stones." Perhaps forever, like Eartha Kitt. Perhaps not.

In "Eet," another workout for Spektor's falsetto and perhaps the most finely crafted pop melody she's ever written, the piano chimes with sweeping majesty, and from the opening lines—"It's like forgetting the words to your favorite song / you can't believe it / you were always singing along"—you're dropped into the middle of a story whose point you immediately grasp. Spektor's piano playing, often her most overlooked ability, is equal to her singing in emotional shading and emphasis, and it's superb throughout this record.

The classically trained and hugely ambitious Regina Spektor burst out of the anti-folk movement headquartered at the Sidewalk Café in New York's East Village with her third album, 2004's Soviet Kitsch, which, in addition to sporting a fun cover photo of Spektor in a commissar's cap slugging booze from the bottle, was a punk cabaret album of modern folk-pop tunes belted out with a Eurocentric edge. Compared to the work of Bjˆrk (voice) and Tori Amos (piano), Soviet Kitsch was a fringe project, albeit one with great promise.

On her next attempt, Begin to Hope (2006), a bigger, glossier production style emerged. Nick Valensi of the Strokes, who'd unexpectedly made Spektor the opener for their 2003 tour, added rock guitarisms, and the singer-songwriter worked hard at mixing the little-girl naïveté with a more sage lyrical outlook. Born in Moscow yet reared in the Bronx, Spektor in Begin to Hope struck a balance between giving her major label something they could sell while retaining enough inventiveness to keep her art and her audience growing.

For Far, four accomplished producers have signed on to help. All the assembled producing firepower of the likes of Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Dr. Dre, Eminem), Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Bloc Party), David Kahne (k.d. Lang, Tony Bennett), and that ubiquitous plague and/or genius, Jeff Lynne (ELO, Beatles, Traveling Wilburys) means that this is easily Spektor's best-sounding record, excelling at huge, expansive soundstages; a wide, warm dynamic range; and a constant laser-like focus on capturing every nuance of her alluring voice.

Besides being a live wire on stage, Spektor's other trump card at this point in her career may be that, unlike the terminally grim Björk, she seems to be having fun without taking herself too seriously (Tori Amos' chief fault). When Spektor speaks of building a computer "out of macaroni pieces," or for a minute imitates a drum machine behind the single-note, first-piano-lesson pecking that opens the jocular "Dance Anthem of the 80's," in which she sassily sings "to dat beat," she matches her girly tone with an equally sprightly attitude. Too cute for some tastes, this font of musical talent shows again on Far that you can go far with a buoyant spirit slathered with hard-to-resist sass.—Robert Baird