Quietly released in 2004, then rolled out by a larger label in 2005, Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch is the kind of eye-opening album that only comes around once in a while. It's not that it's perfect, or that Spektor attempts something that's never been done before. (Anyone wanting to trace her influences could easily work their way back from the Björk yelps in her upper register to her classical training.) It is, however, one of the rare albums where the talent practically sears the speakers. On Kitsch, Spektor combines cabaret intimacy, deliberately paced circular melodies, and an occasionally spooky emotional conviction as she works through tales of divorce, death, and downtown posers. Maybe only a few heard it, but fewer still walked away unconverted.

The straight-out-of-"Still D.R.E." strings that open Spektor's follow-up Begin To Hope immediately announce an expanded sound, producer David Kahne sprinkles plenty of pop-friendly touches throughout the album. But the focus stays tight on Spektor's voice and songs that never struggle to make an impact, even as they defy easy definition. The hushed "Samson" (reworked from a self-released album) combines biblical imagery and references to Wonder Bread to sketch a relationship that's turned unexpectedly fragile. It's followed by "On The Radio," a catchy, uptempo track that dispenses some common-sense advice between references to Guns N' Roses' "November Rain" and funeral processions.


Elsewhere, Spektor immerses herself in roles, playing a tyrant (petty or elected, it's unclear) on "Apres Moi," and giving voice to a downtown type who's ridden the good times as far as they'll go on "That Time." Spektor remains, for the most part, sympathetic to her subjects, and even in its darkest moments, a humane glow envelops the album, which takes her already-arresting sound and expands it to widescreen.