"What We Saw" is an excellent continuation of Regina's unique approach to her craft. If you're a fan of her quirks and eccentricities, her guttural stops and starts are still here, although to a lesser extent than is found in the previous efforts "Far" and "Begin to Hope". The same could be said about her playfulness at the piano, which appears toned down (reined in?) here as the songs take on a more traditional structure. That's not to say that the songs are flat, each contains Regina's unique vocal delivery. Her vocal impressions (impersonations?) are still abundant. On "Far" Spektor infamously impersonated a dolphin, but on "What We Saw" she limits her impersonations to staccato percussion on "Oh Marcello" as well as on the frantic, rollicking "All the Rowboats". On "The Party", Spektor does her best impression of a trumpet.
There are several standouts, beginning with the album's opening track, "Small Town Moon", a song that sounds as if it would easily have been at home on her excellent "Begin to Hope" album, at least that is until the song changes tone and goes off in a new (and not unpleasant) direction 90 seconds in, before returning. Equally strong are "All the Rowboats", "Ballad of a Politician" and "Firewood", which wasn't originally a favorite of mine until one lyric really stood out. Many songs deal with aging/getting older, and the verse "You'll want to go back, You'll wish you were small, Nothing can slow the crying, You'll take the clock off of your wall, And you'll wish it was lying" certainly resonates, but it is a preceding line that really conjures up mental images, and it made me smile while listening to it: "Someday you'll wake up and feel a great pain, And you'll miss every toy you ever owned". Sweet, bittersweet and heartbreaking all at once.
"How" is a delicate, vulnerable post-break-up, how-do-I-go-on-without-you song, a topic that lyrically has been mined to death, but Regina pulls it off spectacularly, and it's one of my favorites on the album. Musically, (and thematically, to an extent) the track is reminiscent of Sam Cooke's wonderful "Bring it on Home". "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)" takes on a decidedly Carribean tone, complete with a marimba, an instument somwhat similar to a xylophone in that it consists of wodden bars struck with mallets. The track easily could find a place on the next Jimmy Buffet album. If there is one song to pass over, it is "Oh Marcello", which finds Spektor, with her Russian accent, singing in English, affecting a faux Italian accent. It's as messy as it sounds.
The album ends with a dramatic departure with "Jessica". If you're familiar with her excellent "Live in London" album (and if you're not, you should be!), you'll know it ends with a twangy, countrified "Love you're a Whore", which really stood apart from the 21 other tracks on the album. "Jessica" is as radically a depature from the rest of "What We Saw" as "Love is a Whore" is on "Live in London". It is a simple, stark closer, gone is Spektor's trademark piano, replaced with an acoustic guitar. It's a fine song, but at less than 2 minutes long it doesn't resonate too heavily.
If there is one complaint, and I do feel it is a valid one, is that the album is FAR too brief. At 11 tracks, the album clocks in at a paltry 37 minutes. Of the 11 tracks, 5 of them fail to crack the 3-minute mark. Not that song/album length dictates quality, but the inability to extend songs beyond two-and-a-half minutes leaves many of the songs feeling incomplete or not fully fleshed out. Many could use another verse to fully explore the ideas, particularly "Ballad of a Politician" which just leaves you wanting more. Regina gave an excellent interview, where she stated she has "dozens and dozens and dozens" of old tunes banging around. She went on to say "I always had this feeling like there's a giant pile of songs and they're all waiting for their turn to be worked on, to be cared for, and be noticed". Regina began her career using free studio time given to her by a friend. Being Jewish, Regina recorded snippets of songs on Christmas day, a time when the studio wasn't booked. Due to time contraints, often tracks were recorded in a single take, so it's because of this Regina has felt a compulsion to revisit her back-catalogue. She has repeatedly gone "back to the well" and revisited songs from her past (see "Samson" from Begin to Hope which originally appeared on the album "Songs" as well as "What We Saw's" "Don't Leave Me" which was also found on "Songs"). It is precisely because of this fact (Regina's claims to have a backlog of songs, as well as her willingness to re-visit older material) that "What We Saw's" brevity is so frustrating. If you're a fan, you'll want MORE, and will be left feeling that "What We Saw from the Cheap Seats", while being a worthy effort, is somehow incomplete.