Release Date: Aug 26, 2014
Record label: Mute
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
What singer/songwriter Al Spx refers to as her "doom soul" is a sound that, had early gospel and blues styles come together in a contemporary setting, colliding freely and comfortably (with little spiritual chafing), might resemble the songs of Neuroplasticity. With settings that move from rock to desolate jazz, Spx treads similar territory to PJ Harvey, facing down the "doom" like a torch singer who sounds, sometimes chillingly, like she knows a bit too much to bear. .
Cold Specks‘ debut album could not have been better named. I Predict A Graceful Expulsion was indeed graceful – there was a calm, a stillness at the heart of the record, with vocalist Al Spx’s wonderfully expressive voice providing a soul. There was a strange kind of tension to most of the songs, as if the titular expulsion was being pushed back underground.
So you might be asking, after seeing the title of Cold Specks’ latest release, what is neuroplasticity anyway? Well, according to an online dictionary definition, and this is perhaps a bit wordy, the word refers to the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction. Put another way, it is the process by which it is thought human brains learn. Research on neuroplasticity is aimed at improving scientists’ understanding of how to reactivate or deactivate damaged areas of the brain in people affected by stroke, emotional disorders, chronic pain, psychopathy, or social phobia, and such research may lead to improved treatments for these conditions.
Mercurial Canada-born, England-based singer/songwriter Al Spx laid the groundwork for her self-described "doom soul" movement on 2012's downright miasmatic I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, a relentlessly slow-burn collection of bluesy and winded soul-folk that suggested an unholy union of Odetta and Tindersticks. On Neuroplasticity, her ear-popping sophomore long-player, she takes the "doom soul" architecture to an exciting new level, pumping it full of nervy post-rock and no wave, resulting in something that sounds akin to Santigold, St. Vincent, TV on the Radio, Laura Mvula, and Macy Gray at their most despondent.
Neuroplasticity is the perfect example of an album in which an artist's sound evolves (by leaps) but her essential spirit remains. Cold Specks's anticipated follow-up to her excellent gospel-indebted folk-soul debut, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, is a much louder, much more rock 'n' roll, much more experimental experience; fuzz and feedback and unexpected elements (like synths on Let Loose The Dogs) constantly make things more interesting. Loel Campbell's drumming is close to the heart of most tracks, carrying songs like A Broken Memory, Bodies At Bay and prog rock standout A Formal Invitation with slightly ominous momentum.
Cold Specks’ first record was a remarkably mature and well-developed record, one of the best of the year. She disowned it almost immediately. Over a year ago I saw Al Spx – voice, guitars and songs of Cold Specks – perform a set where she hated playing the songs of her debut. When I saw her a few months ago, she’s become more detached from them still.
“All is calm, nothing is right,” Al Spx sings at the end of “A Broken Memory”, the first song on Cold Specks’ second album, Neuroplasticity. But, coming from her, the line is as much proud affirmation as it is grave prognostication—because it’s precisely the kind of purgatory she calls home. The music of Cold Specks exists somewhere between log-cabin warmth and wintry forest chill, between exquisite elegance and raw release, between young compulsion and old-soul wisdom.
I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, Cold Specks' enigmatic 2012 debut, was a spectral, spacious collection of songs. The year that followed its release found artist Al Spx touring the album and, eventually, growing tired of the songs that helped make her name. Unsatisfied with the sparseness of her gospel-meets-gothic melodies, Spx set out to fill those spaces with finer details, something she succeeds in doing on her follow-up, Neuroplasticity.Opening number "A Broken Memory" immediately swells with the ominous booms of an organ before drums plunge into the picture.
Al Spx' traditional Somali family didn’t support her doom-y soul-singing dreams when she left home, but others did. The 26-year-old singer's 2012 debut as Cold Specks won her award nominations and made a fan out of Joni Mitchell. Her follow-up simultaneously lets the listener into her world and bolsters her anonymity: Beyond the aliases and the haunting, gothic hymns, we're left with only impressions of who Spx is.
The problem with having a voice redolent of past greats – as Cold Specks' Al Spx undoubtedly does – is that your music can struggle to escape the retro tag. This was an issue facing Spx's stripped-back debut I Predict a Graceful Expulsion – a gospel-influenced folk album – but it's one she seems set on rectifying with Neuroplasticity. Musically, much here is astounding: shrieks of trumpet and malevolent drum crashes conspire to make a forward-thinking yet nightmarish noise.
On 2012’s I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, Cold Specks (aka Al Spx) managed to successfully, without nostalgia, tap into gospel music’s timelessness by pairing gothic-tinged folk songs with tight, subdued production — a solid formula that allowed Spx to showcase her striking vocals. Two years later, she’s changed her sound rather drastically. Gothic imagery is no longer just a vague part of her music, it’s her foundation, making Neuroplasticity — with its surprising emphasis on skronking, atonal horns, and loud, stomping percussion — almost feel like an offshoot of the new Swans record (which she also sang on).
There’s a sense of unease that runs thick through the majority of Cold Specks’ second offering, the aptly named ‘Neuroplasticity’. From the moment the freeform trumpets weave all over opener ‘A Broken Memory’ and reappear in the tail end of ‘Old Knives’, there is a sense of foreboding that proves hard to shift. This is most definitely a winter album.
I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, the debut album by Cold Specks, was a spectral affair, more mood piece than record. For her second effort, Al Spx has upped the ante into a more florid, yet still sepulchral, goth-soul sound, one that borrows playfully from disparate sources such as Nick Cave and New Orleans jazz (the horns are particularly welcome on album closer A Season of Doubt). Despite a greater focus on musicality, tunes remain hard to come by and Neuroplasticity (named for the brain's ability to form new pathways) remains a victory of mood over songcraft, which is to say, not all that much of a triumph.
“Doom soul” is a pretty ridiculous name for a genre, yet this is the term with which Cold Specks have been stuck since the release of their debut, I Predict a Graceful Explosion, in 2011. That album was a sparse, tender collection where every musical element was clearly and carefully defined, and “doom soul” was too ham-fisted a genre tag to even describe a sound as (superficially) simple as on that record. With Neuroplasticity, their fuller, lusher second outing, it is time to drop that ill-fitting ascription entirely.