Regina Spektor, ‘What We Saw from the Cheap Seats’
With 2006’s “Begin to Hope,” Regina Spektor stepped out from the shadows of the hipster underground for some pop-world reach. That career opus struck a fine balance that its follow-up, “Far,” overworked into vanilla mediocrity. Her sixth disc, “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats,” is not only a significant upswing on “Far” for the Soviet-born singer – and much more comfortable in being straight-up strange – but it shows that “Hope” wasn’t a one-time fluke: Spektor doesn’t repress her idiosyncrasies (she beat boxes, speaks in an Italian tongue and lips a marching band) and finds ways to work them more naturally into the handsomely stitched fabric without neutering herself. Of course, it helps having straighter-edged sentiments of endearing candor, like those of “The Party” or “How,” to break up the queerness of her ode to a mass murderer on “Oh Marcello” and the eerie museum narrative “All the Rowboats.” Even without “Firewood,” a beautiful ballad bringing her back down to earth that warmly concludes “there’s still no cure for crying,” there’s no second-guessing it: This is Regina Spektor’s best album ever. Grade: A-
Scissor Sisters, ‘Magic Hour’
Songs about eternal solitude in the sky, horses as our only escape from the apocalypse and a tropical getaway with “the backpack full of Captain Jack”: Not since the quartet’s first album, released nearly a decade ago, have they been this wholeheartedly inspiring. And not inspiring in the make-sexytime way. Their last LP, “Night Work,” was all hyper-horny, like some pre-teen who just discovered what a hand and mouth can really do. Hormones aren’t raging on “Magic Hour,” but, naturally, they’re still there: “Self Control” is a musical oxymoron (how can anyone get ahold of themselves with Jake Shears telling them to “feel the push”?), and the delightfully raunchy “Let’s Have a Kiki” camps up its drag queen romp like some long-lost song from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It’s clear the Sisters want to be about more than just sex; there’s also darkness, loneliness and obvious signs of maturity threaded throughout. Through the classic-rock aura of Elton John comes “San Luis Obispo,” swimming in island rhythms that beseech you to throw on a grass skirt, grab a mai tai and listen closely to the introspection brimming beneath. And who can blame them for “Only the Horses,” a Calvin Harris-produced shot at mainstream fame? With this album, they’ve earned it. Grade: B+
Sigur Ros, ‘Valtari’
Sigur Ros still hasn’t lost touch with its atmospheric washes of melancholy – even four years after releasing their last studio album. And so “Valtari” comes with few surprises. Not that there isn’t profound sound in the instrumental flamboyancy of the Icelandic quartet, but it’s a little like looking at the same starry night: Their defining orchestral whimsy, children’s choirs and unmatched ability at creating serenity all come into play. Fans of Jonsi Birgisson’s fantastic full-of-life solo album will be surprised at how little the frontman is utilized: Often letting the ambience speak for itself, he opens the album’s best track, Varu, with his dreamy falsetto, and then lets it fall into a sonic fire. This is Sigur Ros doing their thing, and doing it as lovely as ever.
Greg Laswell, ‘Landline’
Greg Laswell’s biggest fault has always been writing songs like he has TV network execs in mind: They’re so very “Dawson’s Creek.” More of the same finds the San Diego singer-songwriter fumbling through a series of overwrought emotions that don’t translate to memorable music despite a fuller sound and a few ladies. Sara Bareilles cameos on album-opener “Come Back Down,” a back-and-forth between two exes that’s a refreshing breakup change-up; “Dragging You Around” has Sia in chirpy-voiced pop mode; and Laswell’s wife, Ingrid Michaelson, shows up for the chillingly stunning extended metaphor of emotional support on the title track. Too bad the rest of the album can’t live up to it.