By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
CLEARWATER — Regina Spektor's head is a beautifully cluttered space, attic-packed with heart-squeezing lyricism, robust put-downs and more weird mouth noises than a happy newborn blowing bubbles. Vaudeville could have used a gal like her.
For comparison's sake, she is Fiona Apple with a whoopee cushion, Randy Newman without the jagged chip on the shoulder. But therein lies the love-hate factor with the Russian-born, NYC-raised talent. "Too many ideas" may sound unfair, but hey, when the raging eclecticism fits.
Muscularly pounding her piano in front of 1,486 at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday, Spektor unloaded allll of her art-school quirks over 24 songs and 100 minutes. That's a whole lot of "Regenius," as her loyalists shouted, the twisted-cabaret ditties blurring into one another; she dueted with opening act, and husband, Jack "Only Son" Dishel but even that was strenuous.
When she calmed her ambitions, however, Spektor was nothing less than one of the best performers I've seen all year.
The 32-year-old longs to keep you off-balance, for better or worse. Backed by a three-piece band (drummer, cellist, keyboardist) that was set up at the back of the stage, she sat at a black baby grand toward the front of the stage. She was dressed in chunky black shoes, black leggings, a vintage blue-and-yellow dress; her brown hair was properly school-marmed.
Hundreds of small plastic sheets dangled above her, catching the reds and aquamarines of her subtle light show. And yet, for all the calming effects, for all the vibe of innocent concert pianist, Spektor was a full-contact showoff: yelping, yodeling, singing in Russian, the nationality of her musical parents. She doesn't just span octaves; at one point she mimicked the blurts of a marching band (The Party). She name-checked Guns N' Roses' November Rain. For the silly Sailor Song, the barstool refrain was a rousing "Marianne's a b----!"
You can't fault ambition, of course, and yet when Spektor reins in her ideas, she can be otherworldly. Sweeping breakup dirge How, from new album What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, was one of the most transcendent songs I've ever heard at Ruth Eckerd: It's string-laden and sad: "How can I forget your love? How can I never see you again?" And yet she still injected her curious touches: chirpy bird coos, Beatlesesque chord changes, a big-finish holler. It was different but sweet, and it was far more palatable than the song where she approximated what it sounds like to drown.
Spektor first vaulted into our cultural consciousness with the pop-orchestral contemplation of Us, a song used in the opening credits of anti-love story (500) Days of Summer. She opened her encore with that one — "They made a statue of us / And put it on a mountain top" — and it lovingly illustrated her gifts: a strong, swooping vocal, vaguely playful lyrics that illustrate the power of the underdog, be it a couple or an entire country.
Final song Samson ("You are my sweetest downfall") was just as crystalline and doubly cryptic, a shifting-personae tale as big as the Bible or as small as a couple dealing with mortality. And how about that: Spektor ended her show not with a holler but a knockout hush, all of her odd spirals forgiven just like that.
Sean Daly can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.