May. 02, 2012 - Issue #863: Cold Specks
The doomy soul music of Cold Specks rises above its darkness
Sun, May 6 (7 pm)
With Great Lake Swimmers
McDougall United Church, $25
The music of Cold Specks draws deeply on the spirit of the Alan Lomax recordings, a wide-spanning collection of field music that—before being preserved in wax by the namesake folklorist—existed solely for its singers, not for an audience.
They were the songs that rose up over depression-era work fields, traditional folk and blues sung to pass the time, not out to win sentiment from anyone but ease the daily dirge of those singing it. And on Cold Specks' first single, "Holland," amid a background echo of guitar notes and lingering cello, 23-year old Al Spx sings of that sentiment, conjuring a stark shade of catharsis, of finding "god in the gutter" and accepting the lack of a lasting impression we leave in our time here: "We are many, we are dust," she sings. "Into dust we will all return."
The parallels between the Lomax records and Spx's own are ones she's drawn herself, with comparisons to the recordings encircling her career from early references and discussion in interviews—and here I am, leading with them—though she's quick to agree to the influence of those recordings.
"A friend sent me a copy of [the Lomax record] Southern Journey, and I became completely obsessed with it," Spx says, on the phone from London. "I think it's because I was attracted to, really, people who were singing just for the love of it, not expecting it to ever be a career, and just having those moments of singing captured by Alan Lomax is just a wonderful thing. I just fell in love with it."
Her velvety croon certainly recalls a pre-industry era of song, and "Holland"'s B-side, an a cappella take on old folk standard "Old Stepstone" only serves to underscore the point. But Spx relates more to the spirit of those recordings, of singing for the sake of singing, than the sound specifics: her early musical output was for an audience the size of her social circle, which she thought would remain its permanent parameters.
"I always thought I'd just write some songs, record them poorly on my laptop and send them out to friends," she says. Now, music is revealing itself to be her career. Originally from Etobicoke, Spx now splits her time between Toronto and London (where her band is stationed), and is developing budding followings on both sides of the Atlantic. She'd been casually recording in Canada under the title Basket of Figs when a friend's brother found himself with access to a studio in Wales. He asked her to fly out and make a record, and Spx notes that her first UK recording session is what shifted music from her hobby to a more active interest.
"I'd never really sat down and analyzed my voice or my songs 'till then. And I guess that ... I don't know," she says, searching for the proper term. "Just hearing your songs back, recorded properly, is a nice thing. And it just made me feel proud and happy with the songs. So I continued to make more."
Still, those early sessions left her unsatisfied with making simple voice-and-guitar record. Spx knew a number of UK musicians by then, and selected a six-piece band to bolster her sound, swapping out the Figs moniker with a new, more encompassing one, drawn from a line in Ulysses that had stuck with her ("all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil lights shining in the darkness ... "). The band had garnered buzzing acclaim in the UK, and seems to be slowly building its influence over here, too, likely to shift into a larger awareness with May release of Cold Specks' debut album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion.
Spx has dubbed the album's sound "doom soul," and there's certainly an ambiguous darkness shrouding its tone, never far from the surface, particularly in the lyrics—"Frantic city keep me warm this fall / It's been a heavy year / Bathurst, Spadina, St George and Bay / Am I to condemn the hands of darkness?" goes one line of "Elephant Head"—but bleak as that all sounds, the expanded band gives her songs an affecting uplift: most start as minimal, just one-instrument-and-voice but build to a triumphant swell of guitars, horns and percussion, all guided skyward by Spx's brazen, gospel-worthy voice. The focus of Cold Specks on Graceful Expulsion seems to be on the a sense of rising above ones inflictions instead of circling around them woefully, and it's a potent draft to follow upwards.
She notes that most of the songs on Graceful Expulsion were written a few years ago, but aside from noting the big themes on the album— "Vaguely, without going into details, birth, death and love are the three big ones," she says—Spx doesn't seem keen to dig into what's behind them.
"I guess I was going through what ever teenager or kid in their early 20s goes through," Spx explains of her feelings while writing the album. "I guess just the natural struggles with growing up, and in particular with me, there was a struggle with finding God. Just, really, boredom in the suburbs.
"I don't believe in God now. There was a time that I did," she continues, pointing out her waning faith was a natural progression that began in her teens. "I really came to realize what I was feeling and believing when I was around 20, 21?"
Spx is a pleasant conversation, but also a guarded one. There seems to have been some shift in her life—hobby musician to professional, religious believer to non—that occurred in her early 20s that isn't really up for discussion. In other interviews, she's danced around the fact that her family doesn't necessarily approve of her current career, and that Spx is a moniker used out of respect for their disapproval. But further explanation is something she keeps to herself.
To call her secrecy enigmatic would be inflating it: simply, Spx doesn't seem to want to discuss the stories behind her songs. Given the nature of her music, that's likely for the best: Graceful Expulsion seems set on rising above its troubles, and grounding discussion of the album in what stories lies behind them would run counter to that arc, which, as it stands seems to play quite nicely for Spx. When asked if, given its cathartic nature, anything on the album surprises her to listen back to now, the answer she gives is of an unexplainable little moment of joy.
"At the end of 'Steady,' Teddy Edwards' baritone sax hangs on, and every time I hear that, I chuckle," Spx says. "I'm not sure why, I can't explain it a bit. Every time I listen to that, I chuckle."
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