London-based Canadian singer-songwriter Al Spx of Cold Specks would be profoundly dismayed to hear her music categorized alongside the late Amy Winehouse. And she’d be right to feel slighted, because that would be the clear result of a fleeting, surface listen of her forthcoming debut album, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion (Mute; 2012), which is scheduled to release on May 22. I suggest you listen to it … several times.
Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness. ~James Joyce, Ulysses
Cold Specks is a delightfully uncharted talent in the increasingly multicultural sphere of “indie” music, at least as it’s represented in the States. Music appreciation can be an art in of itself, if not a second job (if you take it seriously enough). As music-loving adventurers rummage through the “best new music” categories of our biggest tastemakers, one would be hard-pressed to find an album that’s entirely devoid of kitsch, posturing, or (dare I say it) pretension. And that’s precisely what Spx’s I Predict A Graceful Expulsion achieves. It effortlessly reaches underneath the adamantine barrier of persona to strike a rawer, more intimate nerve: one’s personal struggle for autonomy, for relevance, for (perhaps) racial equality.
I Predict, an album dubbed by Spx as “doom soul”, harkens back to the Deep South and the Ozarks; where the songs of chain gangs formed the initial intersection between blues and soul, in turn conjuring the stirring “religious rock” of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. For Spx, however, I Predict‘s genealogy traces back to Alan Lomax and Sam Cooke’s field recordings at the Harlem Square Club; not to mention the works of James Carr, Bill Callahan, and Tom Waits.
As she told Paul Lester of The Guardian, “It’s not like I sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a blues song.’ It just sort of happened that way.”
Guided by a unique singing voice — one that’s been said to evoke Mahalia Jackson — tracks such as “Winter Solstice,” “Blank Maps,” and “Holland” showcase Spx’s strikingly sparse arrangements, which in part exhaust the album’s enormous repertoire of all-analog instruments. The lean employ of said instruments include the pianochord, the harmonium, a phonofiddle, slide guitar, cello, trumpet, flugelhorn, organ, and baritone sax. Just as the setting of any auteur film plays a vital role in emoting tone; so do Cold Specks’ painstakingly selected instruments help characterize the smoldering history of civil and racial unrest in her music. Lyrically, it’s no different. Here, Spx purports a metaphorical relationship between instruments (perhaps of the era) and the process of human suffering when faced with stark inequality. The instruments themselves are as living tissue and organs, telling their own story. As such, I Predict‘s production remains largely independent of overly dialed compressors and studio hocus-pocus. It instead groans with authenticity, and it’s the better for it. Examples include “Holland”;
Rotterdam, goddamn / These starving organs hem and haw / Mulling over your post-moderning / I heard them scream / We are many! We are many! We are! [ … ] And to dust we will all return.
He was a funeral hymn composed of fleeting fires [ … ] Sing a song of mercy / I’ve got a pocket full of prayers to spare.
And “Heavy Hands”:
Young man, what is your name? The human heart will refrain, “It is all the same!”
Together with the enlisted help of long-time PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis, Spx converts the raw, potent energy of her bedroom recordings into fully realized, painterly arrangements. Consider that Spx, now only in her early 20s, never played with another musician before I Predict‘s inception in 2011 (UK); that she lead a difficult, painfully shy childhood-cum-adolescence in the suburbs of Etobicoke, Canada; that the album’s climactic track, “Lay Me Down,” was first written when she was 15; and that she is a wholly self-taught musician; it should frankly come as an inspiration to anyone that rues the glittering generalization that “real music is dying.” Not if artists of Spx’s caliber have anything to do with it.
For an album that so thoroughly pieces together a familiar, yet affecting pastiche of pinprick experiences with “struggle” (be it in the context of religion, femininity, race, or coming of age), I cite no fault with I Predict‘s richness of sincerity. If it has its faults, then it’s wholly idiosyncratic to the listener. If there’s something to complain about, then it’s only because we’re human.
In a certain light, Spx’s debut LP is a concept album, one that is held together by a distinct appropriation of select musical traditions of the mythic Deep South. That is its textural (external) motif. Thematically, it revolves around strife, be it from within, or with others of opposing creeds or beliefs. Rather than toy with said traditions, I Predict respects their historical context.
Here, postmodernism is irrelevant, and that’s ironically refreshing.
Of course, akin to this kind of unfiltered straightforwardness are repercussions. I Predict A Graceful Expulsion has apparently caused some controversy with American listeners, where Spx’s deliberate use of the colloquialism, “Goddamn”, has had “Holland” and “Blank Maps” banned from certain radio stations. Yet, the backlash here only serves as living proof of art’s role in exposing residual traces of theocratic culture that need watchful revision — both sociopolitically and interpretively. Moreover, songs and poems aren’t typically read literally. Poetic literalism has more to do with the shortsightedness of the recipient than the work of art itself.
Don’t take it from me; take it from Spx, who couldn’t help the outcome of her work any more than you or I could:
I guess it’s a dark album. It was always going to be that way.
Be sure to watch the new video for “Blank Maps”, directed by Olivier Groulx and produced by Kokomo Workshop:
To listen to an exclusive stream of the entire album, go here (courtesy of Mute and The Guardian’s Music Blog)