Every now and then, it’s still possible to stumble upon a newartist who is doing something quite unlike anything else out there,displaying the sort of timeless qualities that evoke the ghosts ofperformers past yet still delivering something fresh and original. Themysterious 24-year-old Al Spx (birth name stubbornly withheld), whorecords as the only marginally more catchy Cold Specks, is just such adiscovery and her debut album, the intriguingly titled I Predict AGrateful Expulsion, is right up there with the best releases of theyear to date.
Hailing from the obscure Canadian outpost of Etobicoke but nowbased in London, Cold Specks (named after a line in James Joyce’sUlysses – but you already knew that of course) describes her music as‘doom soul’ and in many ways, it’s an apt enough description. Hervoice, a tortured, yearning rasp that sounds rather like a morerestrained, melancholy Macy Gray, belies her tender years, andthe subject matter of her stark yet defiant songs is certainly prettygloomy. However, there’s other influences at work here too, rangingfrom gospel and early blues to the centuries-old folk traditionsunearthed by Alan Lomax’s field recordings of the mid-20thcentury.
Cold Specks’ compositions started off as simple home recordings,with no other musicians involved. Indeed, when manager Jim Andersonwas first introduced, she had never worked with another performer andwas completely self-taught, with her own unique tuning, timing andstyle. After spotting her huge potential, Anderson got his protégéover to London and got her recording with PJ Harvey producer RobEllis among others (Ellis worked on some of the album arrangements) aswell as fleshing out her sounds with layers of strings, brass, pianoand even the occasional choral flourish.
This approach could quite easily have swamped the fragileidiosyncrasies of Spx’s songs, but thankfully they have the oppositeeffect. Tracks like the beautiful Winter Solstice and Send Your Youthbuild slowly and patiently, with layers of cascading piano and thesinger’s hushed, pained delivery establishing the tone before theyflex their muscles impressively when the heavy artillery gets wheeledout later on. Hector employs a faster, almost jazzy beat and elegantguitar lines that recall Talk Talk’s later work, while Holland,with its stately cello intro and Spx’s opening lament of “Rotterdam,god damn” shows the artist at her most elementally powerful, almosthymnal in its force.
The album reaches its peak on Elephant Head, another song of almostreligious intensity that ebbs and flows from passages of gentlystrummed guitar to a huge chorus, with Spx predicting the gracefulexpulsion referenced in the record’s title as what sounds like a fullchoir swells up in her wake. For those who are keen to hear what theoriginal undiscovered artist sounded like, there is a fleeting glimpsein closing treat Lay Me Down, which is just that voice with somerestrained piano, guitar and spectral backing vocals echoing faintlyin the background.
So little is known about Cold Specks it’s difficult to know exactlywhat inspired these vivid, sometimes bleak and lonely but alwayscompelling songs. Images of dying leaves, stillborn thoughts andfamily deaths are hardly the stuff of campfire sing-alongs, yet whenon Blank Maps she proclaims “I am, I am/ A goddamn believer,” she doesso with such conviction you can sense that within all the hurt thereis also a palpable sense of hope.