ONE OF THE GREATEST side effects of the file-sharing revolution is that music is finally free just to be music again. Cover art is a lost art to me, as are liner notes, potentially cheesy band photos, thank yous to former tourmates, and everything else that might suggest who, exactly, the music's target audience might be. All that I have to deal with are the songs in front of me, and it's a beautiful thing.
The sum of my knowledge about Regina Spektor is that she might have been born in Russia, and that her album, Begin to Hope, fills me with an overwhelmingly calm optimism. At times I wonder if she appeals more to the Tori Amos crowd or to the Mirah crowd (never the twain shall meet), but thanks to the autonomy of downloaded MP3s, it's not something I have to bother myself with (and why I would ever bother with the question in the first place?). Maybe Regina Spektor appears in shampoo commercials and plays sold-out shows to liberated ex-sorority girls. I don't know and I don't care.
Begin to Hope sounds simultaneously slick and lo-fi, which might be where the ambiguity comes in, but it walks this tightrope to terrific effect. Spektor has a big, hiccup-y voice that belts out syncopated songs about boys, smoking Marlboros, the Guns N' Roses tune "November Rain," and orca whales. The instrumentation is always kept simple—a jaunty piano, a noodled electric bass and stripped-down drum kit, or a snappy synth line. This approach works perfectly, because Spektor's singing is the main attraction here. It halts suddenly when you expect it to roll, it soars when the song suggests a whisper, and it trembles where most would moan. Combined with warm, infectious choruses (see "On the Radio" for evidence of all of this), Begin to Hope is an album that keeps you on your toes, offering charming juxtapositions and surprising imagery for 47 straight minutes.
Still, if I showed up for this concert and saw nothing but a sea of bobbing ponytails, I wouldn't be surprised. Ditto a swarm of ex-Jesus Lizard fans. Facelessness is the new face of music. It's the best thing I could possibly imagine happening.