Cold Specks is the project of Canadian singer-songwriter Al Spx, which is also a stage name, who has previously categorized her music “Doom Soul” and “Morbid Motown”. These are good enough terms that attempt to convey the weird tendrils of darkness that wrap around every song. All of this works together to build an enigma around Spx and her sound, but previous Cold Specks albums didn’t seem to relish in those signifiers.
On her newest album, Neuroplasticity, those labels simply make more sense than ever. It’s an album that lives in a wicked darkness, with songs populated by funeral horns and lurching rhythms. “A Broken Memory” is has a centra,l pounding, macabre organ while “Exit Plan” toggles between idle guitar picks and a nightmare about the end of the world. Spx herself writes and sings with a theatrical villainess flare: “I smother you with silence until you choke on dead air,” she sings in the dramatic closing to “A Formal Invitation,” and it feels like a good show.
That heavy performance vibe is a big aspect of Neuroplasticity, where you can pretty easily imagine yourself watching this album play out in front of you in a smoky jazz lounge somewhere. The instruments sound like they were recorded with that warm, pulled-from-the-air simplicity. For her part, Spx has a strong, textured voice, but she doesn’t blow it up for dramatic melisma, instead opting to keep her range close and personal.
It’s these two elements together that make up the most intriguing part of the album. There aren’t a lot of bands that can convincingly combine a classic soulful voice with an indie rock backing band. A song like “Bodies at Bay,” a rare moment of lightness, is a good example of everything clicking. The music itself is as glimmering and easy going as prime Broken Social Scene, but with Spx laying a deep vibrato over it, it becomes a cool sound all their own.
Neuroplasticity has something interesting brewing there, although it doesn’t sound like a dead on bullseye. It’s the kind of album that sounds like it would be a great show, but leaves you wanting some clarity and immersion when coming out of an iPod. The songs always have a dark coolness to them, but they seem to stop just short of penetrating any emotional marrow. The lyrics take on poetic declarations — “We move like wolves in the bleak night, we dance like ghosts deprived of fight, the body will come to understand a season of doubt,” followed by “I’ve got an unrelenting desire to fall apart” — but it barely feels intimate, or even vulnerable. The similes are expertly picked to evoke doom, but their imagery obscures anything personal.
Not that every song has to be a confessional. But the dark heart of the song seems to affect Spx so profoundly that it’s hard not to wish you could join in on it too.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.