Monday, May 28, 2012

Kat's Korner: There's nothing cheap about being ripped off


Kat: Art is more then memory but memory counts.  "I must have left a thousand times, but every day begins the same," sings Regina Spektor on her latest album as her right hand challenges her left on the piano in a technique that's always supplied the tension that's been at the core of her art in the past but that doesn't quite manage the trick this go round.

What We Saw From The Cheap Seats comes out Tuesday and, promoting it last week on All Things Considered (NPR -- link is audio and text), she stated,  "I try to be better now [about writing songs down], at least about recording little things because sometimes I still have, like, things just disappear.  You know, you always think, oh, I'll never forget that.  That's so obvious.  And then, of course, you forget it completely."

Some things you wouldn't imagine would be hard to forget.  Like when Regina lapses into repeating the same sentences over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over . . .   Did reading that bore the hell out of you?  Then don't listen to the last third of "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)."  

I also imagine it would be hard to forget the second track "Oh Marcello" -- or at least the bulk of it.  Hearing it you may recall Nina Simone or The Animals or both.  That's because Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus wrote "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" for Nina Simone and The Animals had a hit with it the same year Nina recorded it.   If you leave out Regina's squeals of "Oh, Marcello," you're left with the fact that not only has she cribbed the melody of the sixties hit, she's only written ten lines to her 'new' song -- the rest of the time she's repeating the lyrics to the sixties classic over and over -- specifically the chorus.  Strangely, the credit insists the 'song' was written by Regina Spektor.

I'm actually a fan of Regina's music.  This despite the fact that she spent last year banning people from her Facebook page if they bothered to disagree with her drippy political 'insights.'  In the Cult of St. Barack, Regina is a high priestess.  Most notoriously, she banned a Pakistani-American who left a comment objecting to Regina's canonization of a man killing innocent Pakistanis with his Drone War.

Regina was born in the USSR -- back when it was still the Soviet Union.  So Cult of Personality is probably ingrained in her the way the falsehood "George Washington never told a lie" is ingrained in many Americans.  And possibly the USSR influence is seen in her ability to 'disappear' those with whom she disagrees?  Considering her semi-well known hostility towards the Palestinians, I'd assume she'd try to keep her politics to herself because I can't imagine a lot of people still downloading her albums if they knew.  In fact, I imagine that they'd be saying "F**k Regina Spektor" like (language warning) this response post to political savant Regina did.

Regardless, someone needs to tell her that the United States is not the East Village or an upper East Side cocktail party and that there's a wide range of opinions out there.  If she's made the mistake of assuming that her piano doodles and chronicles of love left people panting in anticipation for her political commentaries, someone needs to clarify reality for her and possibly suggest that she should have spent more time focusing on writing (and stealing) songs because it's not until track six ("How") that she finally produces a number that qualifies as more than filler.

 It would be wonderful if the sixth track marked a turnaround and the remainder of the album was remarkable.  It's not even listenable.  On "Ballad of a Politician," Regina thinks she can take on politics, calling out some unspecified man, trying to We The People it, warning "you're gonna taste the ground real soon" and offering 'deep' 'insight' such as, "A man inside a room is shaking hands with other men/ This is how it happens/ Our world under command."  It's badly written but, even worse, it's a totally unconvincing performance.

pw regina

You can't perform for 'the man' (as she does at the White House above, May, 2010) and then rail against 'the man' and not expect people to laugh at you.

The album closes with what sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody of Regina Spektor.  On "Jessica," she careens from one vocal note back to another in a rocking manner which she might intend to be lulling but will most likely leave more than a few seasick and reaching for the Dramamine.

Art is more than memory.  But it is life and dreams recalled and translated so memory does factor in.  And what I remember most when I listen to this album is Hall & Oates H20.  It was 1982, labels were moving away from vinyl. As always, I was resisting a format change.  But I was freelancing for a record label, following the 'soon to be next big thing' around to snap some photos and also compile some "wild" (the label's term) copy that would make for lively press releases.  So I was recording their words with a beat-up old portable tape recorder about the length of a shoe box but twice as wide.

The band probably saw their greatest 'success' two years before when they started out and were part of the New Romantic movement.  Right now, they were trying to rock and doing so badly but they were sure they'd nailed it (despite the fact that they were being regularly boo-ed each nights as the opening act for one of the many corporate and faceless bands of the 80s).  I think we were in Tulsa but it could have been Santa Fe.  Regardless, I was ready to bail on this easy, high paying gig because I really couldn't take another session of  hearing them explain how Bread changed everything in the seventies and . . . Worse than listening to them face-to-face was listening back to the tapes, transcribing it.  So I was in Tulsa or Santa Fe and wondering around checking the sites when I ended up at a Sears.  (It may have still been billed as Sears and Roebuk.)  And I go inside and take the escalator to the second floor where they have the music department.

I look through the vinyl and see two albums I want.  But I'm two months into this three month assignment and didn't pack a turntable.  So I wander over to the cassettes and they were kept locked behind glass.  There were three shelves in each glass case and the cassettes were stood on end with their covers facing out.  I did have that portable tape recorder and headphones.  So I look for five to grab and then go to find the saleswoman who's been ignoring me since I got off the escalator.  I was wearing a leather skirt, a Zenyatta Mondatta t-shirt (Police), sunglasses and had my hair half piled up and half hanging down.  It was the standard drag-yourself-out-of-bed look for San Francisco but maybe for Tulsa or Santa Fe it was too much?

With major attitude, she unlocked the first cabinet and got the two I asked for out of there, then a second cabinet for one, a third for another and I refused the fourth one because the plastic was off it.  These were the first cassettes I was buying (other than blank ones) and I wasn't going to risk that this cassette with no plastic wrapping hadn't been returned by a previous buyer because it was defective.  I'd be out of town the next day, have no way to return it and be out $8.99.  You would have thought I'd whispered "FDS" to her.  She loudly slid the glass door on the case back and locked it up before snapping, "Anything else?"  (Get the reason why Sears struggles to this day?  Yeah, customer service.)  I had my heart set on five so I pointed to the Hall & Oates cassette in another display case and, with a loud sigh, she unlocked the cabinet and took that up.  When I tried to pay with my Sears card, she asked for three pieces of ID.  I've had people ask for my driver's license before and since when I pay with a credit card, but never, ever for three pieces of ID.

At any rate, I got back to the motel and listened to the cassettes.  "She's Gone," "Sara Smile" and "She's A Rich Girl" (which everyone I knew sang along to as "She's a bitch girl") were radio staples of the seventies  and classics of the AM music genre.  I figured I'd get more of that with H20.  "One To One" was a pretty solid song but the monster hit "Maneater" seemed like something off the Flashdance soundtrack and "Family Man" said nothing to me.  Those were the singles.  And the rest of the album was filler.  Bad filler.

That was 1982.  Ever since then H20 has stood in my mind for the worst example of an artist with nothing to say putting out an album's worth of filler to soak the fans.  Until now. 

With  What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, Regina Spektor sets the standard for filler.  In the process, she also manages to insult the faithful who have bought the nosebleed seats over the years.  She sort of 'sends them up' (mocks and sneers) in the opening track when she includes a hand clapping put-on.

Art is memory.  Maggie and I doing the bridal shower thing right for Toni by taking her to the Galaxy in LA in March 1995 for a rare Carly Simon concert and watching in stunned silence from the front row as she gave new life to "Haven't Got Time For The Pain" and the whole place shaking as everyone in the audience joined in on the chorus of "You're So Vain." Toni'll tell you today the marriage lasted longer than the concert but that she has better memories of the concert.   Driving out of Magic Mountain in 1976 with Chris in his big, beat-up Plymouth, my nieces already snoozing in the back seat while Chris and I held hands and hummed along with Rod Stewart singing "Tonight's The Night" on the radio.  The San Francisco Civic Auditorium in 1983, staring at my boyfriend Martin and my friend Ali and realizing they were sleeping together while Elvis Costello performed "Blame It On Cain."  October 1, 1981, in love with _____, a wealthy married man, and guilty over it but not too much that night when we celebrated our sixth week anniversary with him whisking me to NYC for a concert at the Ritz where Tina Turner left me in tears as she completely re-invented the Beatles' "Help" live onstage. Bonnie and I flashing our breasts to sneak into Janis' October 1969 Filmore West Show (does a flash of boob still have that power in the age of the internet, I wonder?) and realizing that even though she'd already put "Little Girl Blue" down on vinyl, Janis was only now really living it.  Working every connection I had to get a copy of the forthcoming Tango In The Night which was supposedly Fleetwood Mac's Rumors II and almost giving up when a friend messengers it to me and then listening and realizing its actually More Mirage and while Christine McVie's written some nice work, the only thing I really respond to heavily is Stevie Nicks' "Welcome To The Room . . .  Sara" and "When I See You Again" -- and really wishing someone would tell Lindsey Buckingham that not everyone wants chocolate syrup poured over every track and production restraint can mean so much.  A tropical night with hot and hairy Corey Hart where we both drank too much, made out like crazy and after, at my request, he softly sang  ("It Ain't Enough") to just me.  Serenaded in bed by sexy Corey, now that's a memory.

But remember that Tango In The Night I slipped in there?  And remember my reactions to H20?  Those are memories too.  And, sad for Regina, art is a process between the artist and the public.  And one of the worst memories you can leave any fan with is the one Regina creates on What We Saw From The Cheap Seats:  the feeling of being ripped off.  That's not a memory that easily or soon fades.