Whether or not you approve of where Regina Spektor has ended up, a decade on from 11:11 – and I’m pretty sure I don’t – it would be silly to deny that Live in London catches her at an interesting juncture.
While her most recent LP, Far, sounded like a disappointingly conventional attempt to secure an exponentially increased audience won via tracks like ‘Fidelity’ and ‘On the Radio’ from 2006’s Begin to Hope, she’s obviously continuing to write stranger, funner stuff on the sly: ‘Silly Eye-Color Generalizations’s unaccompanied, stream-of-consciousness blend of showtune and beat poetry, for example, and ‘Love You’re A Whore’s pitch-perfect country and western pastiche, both unquestionable highlights here. And so while a single like ‘Eet’ is, (irritatingly) kooky title aside, the natural next step on from ‘Us’s anthemic tempering of Spektor’s vocal twitches – rather than the rest of Soviet Kitch’s chair-hitting and back-of-throat noise-making – it is the latter she continues to relish most of all at gigs. Live in London’s version of ‘Sailor Song’ marries a makeshift background clatter with crackled vocal interludes and one long bending note sung high into the Hammersmith sky.
Regina Regina Reginah-ah-ah is, in short, a pretty big deal these days, but lacks a pretty big deal’s hit-studded back catalogue. She can fill the Hammersmith Apollo but in doing so, only has the opportunity to show off her more grandiose affectations – ‘Apres Moi’s thrillingly multilingual take on Boris Pasternak’s 'February', for example – rather than the half-spoken, more minimalistic compositions of the early albums, which only work in venues on a scale of, say, the Bull Moose record store where a 2005 live EP was recorded. Boys and girls who like films like  Days of Summer head to her shows expecting an intimate, vintage-tinted experience and come away disappointed that the crowd was massive and she only said a few words to them (“thank you! I’m so happy you’re here!”) without realising that, ironically, it’s precisely because of films like  Days of Summer that her shows are like that now.
Live in London is the sound of Spektor navigating an efficient path through this mainstream-alternative liminality. She begins by rattling through ‘On the Radio’ and three of Far’s bigger hitters with minimal adornment and at a lick that makes what turns out to be a 22-song set actually feasible – the best bits being those moments when a lyric fragment like ‘Folding Chair’s “the sea is just a wetter version of the sky” shimmers out a song and lingers long after its been sung. An even more lusty than usual ‘Apres Moi’ then breaks things up a bit – and an instrumental-led version of the ridiculously enjoyable ‘Dance Anthem of the 80s’ along with Regina-plays-guitar live staples ‘Bobbing for Apples’ (“somebody next door is fucking to one of my songs”) and ‘That Time’ are the result. It quickly becomes apparent that the crowd is saving its big cheers for three things in particular: singles, tracks from Far and those times Spektor makes an especially eccentric noise. This is a bit annoying, particularly where the latter is concerned.
Neither is it an accurate reflection of the set’s peaks and troughs. The high notes of a gorgeous, cello-flecked version of ‘Ode to Divorce’ get caught up in the cavernous Apollo’s natural reverb and it’s a stunning tribute to Daniel Cho, Spektor’s drowned cellist, to whose memory Live in London is dedicated – not to mention the best thing on the record. Actually, one thing I will say for her newer songs is that they take her voice – as in, her actual singing voice – in stunning, sweeping directions. I barely noticed ‘Laughing With’ and ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ on Far but live, the switch-on switch-off combination of tenderness and melodrama is compelling. Much more so than on the better-known stuff that brings proceedings to an audience-delighting (and loudly sung-along) close: a ‘Hotel Song’ that’s surprisingly reminiscent of Vampire Weekend’s Ivy League Africana; ‘Fidelity’ with the addition of a couple trills that can’t disguise the fact you’ll, like me, have heard it way too many times; ‘Us’ and ‘Samson’, the soundtrack to a thousand Zooey Deschanel movies.
And then that raucous, breathless, daft, brilliant “little country song” she’s obviously written purely for the fun of it, which made me long for a Regina who hung out with, I don’t know, Jeffrey Lewis in charmingly frayed Lower East Side cafes once more. Unhelpful as such a longing is.
7Sam Kinchin-Smith's Score