I bought two CDs - Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch and Antony and the Johnsons' I am a bird now. Both are wonderful, and both are wonderful for the same reason, though they are quite distinct. The reason? Both manage to create strange, idiosyncratic music that is nevertheless immediately appealing. Antony Hegarty combines his pseudo-operatic voice with lyrics exploring gender ambiguity, and wraps it up in a soulful Stax-Volt style. Regina Spektor is harder to describe; her songs are elegantly structured, rendered with a sort of minimalist panache.
So how do these two musicians combine radical originality with equally radical likeability? If I had the answer I'd be out making my own radical, likeable music instead of my bland, pleasant music. I think, though, that it lies in both musicians use of direct, well-crafted yet simple melodies and in their considerable vocal power. Thus their own strange aesthetic visions are rendered in a palatable - no, delicious - form. I suspect, too, that both reached this level of achievement through hard work; Antony Hegarty is only just now finding a mass audience at the age of 37, after well over a decade of honing his craft in New York's underground cabarets. Spektor, though younger, has obviously gone through a process of honing her craft; her early work consists largely of Billie Holiday imitations, which, though pretty, are nowhere near as interesting or as enjoyable as her most recent album.
On the whole, I would say Spektor's music is more varied and interesting than Antony's, but perhaps less consistent; Antony's is simpler and catchier, but less original in terms of songcraft, and is ever so slightly monotonous. Ironically, I couldn't find his album at Kim's because it was filed under "Experimental," whereas Spektor is being marketed towards a more mainstream audience. Both, however, have been featured on NPR; I was thrilled to hear Antony tell Elizabeth Blair that his grandmother wishes his music were happier - my own grandmother said the same thing about my songs. So I guess me and him have that in common.