Thursday, June 7, 2012

Doom Soul: Cold Specks' I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

Al Spx, aka Cold Specks

Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness
 James Joyce, Ulysses

The first time I heard of Al Spx (the pseudonymous name of the Etobicoke-raised singer/songwriter
– and Cold Specks is another of her made-up names – she now lives in London, England), I was listening to Metro Morning on CBC Radio in Toronto last February. Host Matt Galloway, whose musical taste I rarely find interesting (his middlebrow views which he thinks are so multi-culti can be frequently infuriating), introduced the first single, "Holland," from her soon-to-be-released album, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion (it came out last month). The thing that stopped me cold (no pun intended) was not the song (he hadn't played it yet), but rather the term he used to describe the type of music she plays. Al Spx calls it: doom soul.

Then he put on the song “Holland” and I immediately knew what she meant. Spx's only 23 years old, but she has a voice that sounds like it's coming from three generations back. It is deep, and thick and incredibly compelling. The other thought that flitted through my mind as I listened to “Holland” (and more recently the rest of the album) was how much her music sounded like the exploration/delving first heard on record in the field recordings produced by Alan Lomax in the 1940s and '50s. The song is not exactly a throwback to Lomax (where his recordings captured the music and sounds of the black Americans as they sang about their lives, loves and losses), but that Lomax's recordings turned out to be one of Spx's influences.

What is fascinating about her album – which is quite terrific, but far from perfect – is how she takes the musical stylings captured by the recording techniques of Lomax and turns it into something new. In songs like “Holland,” it starts with her simply strumming an acoustic guitar and her voice, nothing more (later drums and guitar join in). There is a slight and deliberate imperfect room echo that adds a layer of the past to her sound. While the sessions are clean and bright, there's also a feeling that someone dragged her into a church basement gymnasium (the type of gym that would have an elevated wooden stage at one end) to record her songs (which echo how Delta blues singer Robert Johnson was originally recorded). On the evocative song, “Winter Solstice,” the drum beat used sounds more like someone pounding/stamping out the song's key rhythm, but not on a drum kit. It sounds like her drummer is using the floor of that wooden stage. It is that handmade quality that pulls the listener in. It makes you think, “This was written and recorded in 2011?” But then there's the lyrics.

Fred McDowell
Unlike Lomax's recordings (which you can explore on the website, where people like Fred McDowell (such as in his song, “What's the Matter Now”) would sing straightforward blues about being abandoned by a lover, Al Spx's lyrics deal more in Gothic poetic imagery. Spx loves to play with language creating a mood, and shaping her doom soul. It's not unlike the very early REM where singer/songwriter Michael Stipe put a string of words together to create a dark mood that may or may not have had meaning.

“One thousand still born thoughts to cradle and hold” and “clean up these organs, wrap your words with my skin” are just two samples from the song “Elephant Head.” The song builds a mood through her playing with language and imagery rather than straightforward emotion. There's also a fascinating merging of the rural and the urban in her songs. You can listen to a song like “Elephant Head” and feel that you are in rain-streaked, humid countryside listening to a fanatical religious zealot who is waiting for the rapture. (This is where the album's title comes in: “I predict, a graceful expulsion” an expulsion from society? From Eden?) Then she sings the names of four Toronto subway stations, “Bathurst, Spadina, St. George and Bay” which immediately puts you into the city's downtown centre. This blending of the modern urban and the ancient rural takes you deeper into her songs. You come out of the experience of her album as if you've time travelled back to an era lost, while simultaneously seeing the modern world all around you. Doom soul, indeed.

As I said earlier, though, the album is not perfect. She overplays images again and again, such as “you put your hand over your chest, so the fire would rage,” from "Winter Solstice." Similar imagery pops up in more than one song, as does death or murder imagery. But I look at it this way. She is only 23. As she matures as a singer/songwriter, the songs will only darken and deepen. I hope. My only fear is that this may become her schtick. Will she progress and develop? Or will she get stuck and become this poetry-trapped old-soul singer who cannot elevate herself beyond where she is on her first album? I suppose time will tell.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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