TORONTO, ON* — She speaks low and softly into the lipstick-stained mic, cherry red from her own makeup, “This song is about decapitating your lover in their city.” A burst of awkward chuckles resonate around CBC’s Studio 211 before she clarifies: “It’s a love song.” Then she and her four touring bandmates launch into “Exit Plan,” a quiet folk tune with heady prog-rock choruses.
Canadian-born, London-based Cold Specks (who also goes by Al Spx) made waves two years ago with her Polaris Prize-nominated debut, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion. Now she’s back with the follow up, a table-turning, garish, and almost animalistic 10-track record titled Neuroplasticity. It’s out August 26th via Mute Records, and like Pandora’s box, once its daymares are out, they don’t go back in.
Tuesday August 12th’s filmed, First Play segment at the Canadian Broadcasting Company headquarters in Toronto treated a crowd of about 40-something to an intimate live preview of the album. And it’s a powerhorse live. Spx herself was flawless in her vocal delivery, and the varied instrumental accompaniment was that much more real. It felt only natural, despite being obviously and meticulously rehearsed. (Video coming soon via CBC.)
“The record was mapped out in the cottage. I was there for about three months,” Spx explains on an official press release. “A Formal Invitation, Old Knives and Absisto were essentially written there. They are the more unusual songs on the record. I may have been reflecting on my surroundings. Have you ever been to Glastonbury? It’s a pretty fucked up place.”
Theatrical trumpeting, courtesy of local (to Oakland, California) musician Ambrose Akinmusire, and the minor tonality of a large fraction of Neuroplasticity paint a cold, grim landscape around Spx’s assertive vocals. “A Broken Memory” is a prime example, complete with Hallowe’en-night-windchime bells, and a creepy start to a generally creepy album. Spx, Akinmusire, and Michael Gira (Swans) – who appears throughout Neuroplasticity to offer deep backing vocals — are the contemporary Addams: hipper and obscure rather than morbid, but still able to formulate a musical.
Welcome to the Family.
They and their product are not radio-friendly, conventionally catchy, or of varied commercial success. Not a single track on Neuroplasticity stands out from the others — not even its lead single, “Absisto” — and yet, the album’s intricacies and unconventional signatures are difficult to erase from memory.
In the curious case of Neuroplasticity, “Absisto” as a lead-in makes sense. Its instrumentation paces ominously about upstage while Spx’s vocal delivery here takes front and centre. Similarly, the album’s conclusion, “A Season of Doubt,” sees Spx channelling a darkly-written, Are We There-era Sharon Van Etten (“we move like wolves in the bleak night”) atop sparse, downtempo piano melodies.
There are moments where Spx reverts to the Southern folk, which featured heavily and garnered attention on her previous album; moments like the rural acoustic guitar on the more accessible second single, “Bodies at Bay;” the sweet lyrical verses of “Exit Plan” (but not so much the duet choruses); and “Smoke on the Water”, bass in “Living Signs.” Otherwise, she is occupied introducing a new, darker element to her sound—an element that drives critics, upon hearing Neuroplasticity, to dub Cold Specks as “goth rock.”
But underneath that unexpected aesthetic veil is everything expected of the songwriter: a thoughtful and musically exquisite sophomore effort.
*This summer, The B-Side reports from locations wordwide, including Berlin, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto.