All the Rowboats

Frankly, I did not much care for Regina Spektor’s latest album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats. Spektor can be a wildly inconsistent artist, capable of producing perfect piano pop songs with just the right touch of quirky, and sometimes just being too, too quirky at the expense of good songcraft, and I though this album was particularly inconsistent. I thought that she had more or less grown out of her early habit of being quirky just for the sake of weirdness, but here the quirkiness is sometimes overwhelming (and I usually love me some good quirk.) After the polish and maturity of Far, it feels like a giant step backwards. I wish that Spektor would focus on her gift for pretty melodies and clever lyrics and quit with the weird throat-singing. But all is not lost. She can still be amazing when she puts her mind to it, and this single is a highlight. It has a heavier (slightly) more dramatic sound than we’re used to from her, and it is exceedingly original and clever lyrically, which is exactly what we want Regina to deliver. Spektor has grown a lot since her slightly flaky first couple of albums, and she’s shown that she can be a top level songsmith. It would be cold to begrudge her her playfulness, even though sometimes it seems to be more fun for her than it is for us.


You’re riding in a car with a guy and this song comes on and he’s singing along with it. Is this good or bad? If he’s your gay bff, it’s awesome. You can sing along together. If he’s a straight dude and it’s, like, your second date and you barely know him, it kind of gives you that queasy this-is-doomed feeling. At least me it does. This is no holds barred my favorite Regina Spektor song, in fact the one that first got me sitting up and wondering who this girl was and should I be checking her out. I love it! But it’s not a song a guy should be singing to his date, especially if he’s only just met her. Because that’s fucking creepy, dude. So any guys out there reading, take note of what I’m telling you here. Singing sappy chick songs to a girl you’re barely acquainted with = major turnoff. This has been a tale from a walk on the wild side. Thankyouverymuch.


Regina Spektor charms me. Not just because I like her voice and her squiggly red hair, though I like those things very much. I like her songwriting, the way she’ll write about anything – a folding chair, her eyelashes. Writing about the common things is easy. Anyone can write a love song, and everyone does, and what’s wrong with that? Expanding beyond the obvious doesn’t come as easily. Spektor can do love songs, with her own twist of course, but she sets herself apart when she writes something random. Like this… I’m not sure I’m following. Is she dissing Paul McCartney? That takes balls of steel. Or is she paying tribute in her corkskrewey way? That I have to stop and wonder at all, that’s what charms me the most.

Top Ten of 2009

This is the time of year when everyone, in every media, compiles top ten lists, usually after commenting about how sick they are of other people’s annoying top ten lists. Well, I like top ten lists. (Also top 50s and top 100s.) I like lists in general, because they create the illusion of organized thought. Every year I read every stupid wrongheaded top ten list I can get my hands on, even though I end up disagreeing with 9 out of 10 selections therein. This is not only the end of the year, but also the end of a decade, and thus an extra-special occasion. And it occurs to me that I’ve never made a top ten list of my own. Until now.  Some people compile multiple lists in order to cover the culture from all angles. I’m not going to do movies this year, because I don’t really care about the cinema anymore, sadly enough. Not going to do books, because I’m not sure I even read ten books this year. Ok I have read more than ten books, more like 20, but hardly any of them were actually new. I’m also not going to burden you with my supposedly deep views of the year that was or the massive cultural rifts that sprang up between today and the same day ten years ago. Let more seasoned culture vultures hash it out. I’ll just say it was a better year than 2008, and as for the decade, at my age I don’t have much basis for comparison so I’ll say it was probably so-so in general but ok for me personally. Since it is at least somewhat special to ring out the decade, I will be going back and compiling retroactive best ofs for the previous nine years. That should keep me busy for a week or two. So, that just leaves the music; Top Ten Albums of 2009 here we come.

#1- The Hazards Of Love by  The Decemberists because it was far and away the best album of the year. When so much of what passes for music in the marketplace (I’m not going to say nowadays because it’s by no means a new phenomenon) asks that you please check all conscious thought at the door, here is a little miracle; an album that requires some effort on the part of the listener. Huge props to Colin Meloy for reviving that old mammoth the concept album so fiendishly well. One does have to play it over a few times to figure out what the dickens is going on, especially if you own it on mp3 without the benefit of a lyric sheet. The songs must go in order, so no shuffle, no wandering off, sit down and pay attention for the full duration and you will be rewarded. Hazards is musically diverse, ranging from folksy to fierce and inviting favorable comparison to the epic narratives of classic JTull. Following the musical narrative creates an emotional investment most books and movies can’t muster, leaving the listener emotionally affected but exhilarated.

#2 – Morrissey’s Years Of Refusal because he’s on a massive winning streak since his big comeback in 2004, putting out his best material since the early 90s (or, according to himself, ever.) If you have to ask if that baby is his own, you clearly don’t know Moz.  Beginning with the words “I’m doing very well,”  and ending with I’m OK By Myself, the mood is rather cheerful by Moz standards – he has been very chipper lately. Growing up, perhaps? He finally admits that “yes, there are things worse in life than never being someone’s sweetie.” Plus multiple other deep thoughts about pharmaceuticals, suicide, and um, doing…things…”right here, right now, on the floor.”

#3 – The Dead Weather’s
because Jack White owns my soul.

#4 –  Devendra Banhart, What Will We Be, because someone had to revive the psychedelic freak folk of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Devendra Banhart has always reminded me strongly of both Marc Bolan and Donovan, because of his quivery vocal style and his habit of writing whimsical songs about seahorses. The world really needs a dose of acid soaked folk rock, delivered by a heavily bearded cross dresser. Don’t believe the rumblings of purists who complain that Banhart has ‘sold out’ and become somehow less authentic since moving to a big label. That’s just pretentious whining. The early stuff was good, but with the help of a heftier budget he’s made a gleaming, rocking great album, and with the help of some big label publicity maybe he’ll sell a few copies this time out.

#5 – Regina Spektor,
, because ‘quirky’ doesn’t have to be a bad word. Breathy redhead at the piano, sound familiar? Regina Spektor has broken out of the army of young girl singer/songwriters by having her own eccentric style. While comparisons to Tori Amos are inevitable – same hair color, after all – Spektor definitely has an original voice. She’s both eccentric and accessible, writing songs that are kooky and catchy. Far is her most polished album, potentially commercial, but it still shows her personality and style.  Unlike so many women who also sing and play the piano, Spektor isn’t burning with angst. She’s not angry or sad. Her songs are shot through with humor. On Folding Chair she skewers the cheap ’empowerment’ of songs like Christina Aquilera’s Beautiful; “I got a perfect body, cause my eyelashes catch my sweat/ yes they do, they do.”

#6 – Cage The Elephant, because they had the most ubiquitous hit single of the year, at least here in Austin. Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked has been on the radio nonstop since spring, and I haven’t got sick of it. That’s because it rocks. Of course the fact that it sounds like something Jack White might toss off at a jam session is a big part of the appeal – and that’s a compliment. It’s great to hear a rising generation who’ve taken amped-up blues rock Jack White gave us and are making it their own. The rest of the album is…more of the same, but not dull at all. A fine debut, all in all.

#7 – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, still making music to make girls dance. OK it’s not the out and out masterpiece their first album was. It’s not even as good as You Could Have It So Much Better. Not every track makes girls jump up and dance. But you know what? It’s still miles better than 99% of everything else in the world, and thus a top ten keeper.

#8 – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz, because the Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally acknowledge the big fat debt they owe to Blondie. After decades of anti-synth sentiment, the pnendulum swings back. Cool bands are starting to realize that a good synth beat is a girl’s best friend. It’s no coincidence that the deliriously good single Zero almost-quotes Heart Of Glass. Being to hip for melodies is officially over. As Karen O sings “dance dance dance till you’re dead”.

#9 – Lily Allen,  It’s Not Me, It’s You, because I like Lily Allen and I’m not ashamed. Ha ha ha ha. Seriously though, Lily Allen may be a tabloid spectacle who gets sloshed in public, says dumb things, picks fights with Elton John, flashes her chimichangas, and sin of all sins actually sells a lot of records and gets radio play but underneath it all she’s one of the sharpest songwriters around. Sometimes she writes heart-on-sleeve songs about being trapped by the fame machine (The Fear) or her estranged father (He Wasn’t There). Sometimes she really lets herself go and writes a thoughtful meditation on the nature of God (“His favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival”). Besides, what could possible be more appealing than a kitten-faced cutie chirping a song with the chorus “fuck you, fuck you very, very much”?

#10 – Morrissey, Swords, because in an otherwise slow news year, Morrissey put out two albums. Yes, I’m aware that Swords isn’t even new material. It has been an excruciatingly dry season, and it’s not every year we get the extraordinary opportunity to contribute to Morrissey’s cat food fund not once, twice. Oh we are ever so grateful. Swords is a collection of b-sides and rejects from the last three albums (I continue to marvel that the very of concept of a b-side still exists). Some of the songs must have been left off the proper albums through some mistake or mere time constraints, because, say Christian Dior is more than worthy as a single. Some tracks are frankly odd, but that comes with the territory. It wouldn’t be a Morrissey album without a dirge or two thrown in. It’s neither ‘meek’ or a ‘disaster’. Finally, to hear Morrissey’s butchering of Drive-In Saturday alone is worth the price of admission.

Honorable Mention:

Bob Dylan, Christmas In the Heart, because if anyone out there is unclear on the meaning of the term So Bad It’s Good, Zimmy has kindly provided us with the ultimate definition thereof.

The Calculation

Schiesse! My software glitches out for one moment and there goes my organizational system, causing me to inadvertently skip important songs.  So,  a day late and a dollar short, The Calculation by Regina Spektor. This is from her new album Far. When I downloaded this album and played it for the first time, it was so good I literally thought I was dreaming. I was very drunk that day.

Apres Moi

Tori Amos has a lot of daughters, musically speaking. Every year it seems there’s an earnest new girl singer, clinking away at a grand piano. I get all the Tori I need from Tori herself, so the piano pounding virago is not the role I want to see young women adopt. Yet, sometimes someone comes along who takes the girl/piano formula and turns it around and makes it shiny again. I’m speaking of Regina Spektor, who appeals to me vastly for a variety of reasons. Because she has thoughts in her head besides dissecting her breakups (emo for girls), and she has some vim and wit. Also because she occasionally sings in Russian. And largely because she knows how to be earnest, and heartfelt, without seeming self-absorbed. Narcissism is the downfall of the confessionalists. Spektor is not a confessionalist, luckily. Her latest album, Far, was outstanding, with some diamond perfect songs. It’s her most polished one yet, in a good way. This one’s a keeper.