May 14, 2012

Review: Cold Specks – ‘I Predict a Graceful Expulsion’

Posted in Reviews tagged , at 12:39 pm by essentiallyeclectic

Cold Specks – I predict a Graceful Expulsion

The story of Al Spx’s discovery is classic happy accident fare. Her now manager, Jim Anderson, finally gave in to his brother’s insistence that he come check out a young singer he’d stumbled across in Toronto. Anderson – upon hearing the Etobicoke native’s doleful, self-styled brand of ‘doom soul’ – was sold and convinced her to follow him back to the UK to make a record as Cold Specks. I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, the outcome of a year and a half spent in London, is the manifestation of what Anderson heard in those early demos, and is an attractive – if a touch safe – introduction to Spx’s sound.

Regular PJ Harvey conspirator Rob Ellis is on hand with arrangement work, and there is more than a little Polly Jean spook creeping through tracks like ‘Heavy Hand’ and the menacing ‘Hector’. Opener ‘The Mark’ is a delight – all hushed finger-picking, unobtrusive string augmentations, and Spx’s engaging vocal setting out the album’s stall early on. It’s a world-wearied voice juxtaposed on such a youthful face, and lyrical themes of the tired, heavy-hearted variety are Spx’s bread and butter: “Take my body home” goes the chorus of ‘The Mark’; “we are many, we are dust / and to dust we’ll all return” on ‘Holland’.

Tied in with this is a vaguely religious lexicon – one inescapable due to an influence of southern spirituals – but it’s more of a nod to the traditions of the style rather than a full on cry for deistic embrace. Bill Callahan’s calculated, uncomplicated delivery can also be detected, mixed with the rawness of Lead Belly and other stars of Lomax field recordings.

Unfortunately, perhaps with one eye on a demographic built from a stirring acapella performance of ‘Old Stepstone’ on Later With Jools Holland last year, some of Spx’s rougher edges are sanded down and smoothed out at times. ‘When the City Lights Dim’ descends into Norah Jones territory with a watered down arrangement and dinner party groove, while a rather hackneyed video for first single ‘Blank Maps’ matches that song’s particular shade of filler. In fact, the further Spx is removed from her ‘doom soul’ styling, the more safe and uninteresting her music becomes. So it is with great relief that the closing pair ‘Steady’ and ‘Lay Me Down’ return to the promising work of ‘Elephant Head’ and the aforementioned ‘The Mark’.

At times, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion can be slightly one-paced and one-trick, but it’s a trick attractive and earnest enough to warrant repeated listens. If Spx is allowed the freedom to present her music in a less contrived fashion, future releases might be something to watch out for. In the meantime, it’s likely that any number of the intimate live performances she has lined up over the coming months will be the best way to experience Cold Specks.

Read this review in context over at THE 405

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