Musicians Spektor amp; Nathanson demand respekt

by Beacon Staff • October 10, 2007

At least that's the vibe that indie rock-the counter to the deathly sugary melodies of '90s mainstream pop-has been trying to convey for years.

But suddenly, indie artists such as singer/songwriters Matt Nathanson and Regina Spektor are getting airplay and selling out live shows-including the ones in Boston this weekend -with their hopeful albums.,Hope sucks.

At least that's the vibe that indie rock-the counter to the deathly sugary melodies of '90s mainstream pop-has been trying to convey for years.

But suddenly, indie artists such as singer/songwriters Matt Nathanson and Regina Spektor are getting airplay and selling out live shows-including the ones in Boston this weekend -with their hopeful albums. Literally: Spektor's album is called Begin to Hope and Nathanson's August release is dubbed Some Mad Hope. They're not all that covert about this whole optimism thing.

Sure, according to at least one definition of indie music, both Matt Nathanson and Regina Spektor are not genuine, wrist-band wearing indie artists-they no longer self-release their albums. Nathanson's latest disc, Some Mad Hope, is his second record with a major label while Spektor's Begin to Hope is her debut on a major label.

Fans who have followed Nathanson and Spektor before they found fame, however, know that both artists' music careers began long before they were signed.

Nathanson is the upbeat indie rocker you may want to stay away from this weekend. He recorded four albums by himself in the 10 years before Beneath These Fireworks was released under Acrobat Records. The albums had a rough, unpolished character that would be jarring to a fan of just the major releases or of any Howie Day or James Morrison-sound-alike.

Nathanson also struggles with some of the vocals on his self-releases. He sounds nasally on tracks like "Wings" and "Lucky Boy" from Still Waiting for Spring, though it is unclear whether this is because of his voice or the poor production.

But the real importance of the older albums, however whiny, is that they established Nathanson as a pensive songwriter and gave him a reason to tour. From there, he formed a devoted following, passing through coffeehouses and colleges with his acoustic guitar, some charm and a handful of jokes. It was this - Nathanson's wit and the Warrant and Journey covers he churned out at his live shows - that let this Lexington, Mass. native spread his rampant optimism.

Although Some Mad Hope's major label sheen weeds out the whininess, it may have thrown some unnecessary gloss on Nathanson's sensitive image. So look forward to his unique humor and not his unoriginal, popified ballads during his appearance at the Roxy this Saturday.

On the other hand, Russian songstress Regina Spektor's kind of hope helps her float above other popular artists. Her originality is partly due to her time spent in Russia as a schoolchild, and her music teacher/mother that taught her piano. When she moved to New York, she studied classical music with a professor from the Manhattan School of Music until she was 17. Her influences became more eclectic when she was exposed to Ani Difranco, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, hip-hop, punk, rock and jazz. Eventually, she was playing the New York anti-folk scene at whatever venue she could get.

That diversity transcended into Begin to Hope and listeners have started to pay attention. The June 2006 release debuted on the Billboard Top 200 chart at 70 and peaked weeks later at 20. The album was the first Spektor did entirely under a label and in a studio with a producer. The difference can be heard in the addition of instruments and the richer vocal production. "Samson," redone for this album, was one of the few songs that suffered under the new production.

Sire, her new label, helped Spektor get the audience that she deserved by pimping her single "Fidelity" ad nauseum. If you weren't one of the over 3-million clicks to "Fidelity's" YouTube video, it's the song that you've heard on Grey's Anatomy and radio or TV commercials showcasing Spektor's extended vocal range with staccato accentuations of the word "heart." The hopeful hooks worked, and it stuck out on Top 40 radio.

So far, the only pessimistic aspect of Spektor's fame for the indie music fan is that she's selling out large theatres like the Orpheum - the Tremont Street theatre where she is playing this Sunday - instead of small, more intimate lounges.

Maybe indie rock had it right: hope is starting to suck after all. Just not the way it used to.