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Cold Specks' Graceful Expansion

New album 'Neuroplasticity' is all about broadening the sound.

By Gregory Adams 28 Aug 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Gregory Adams is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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Cold Specks totally doesn't trust that wall.

Cold Specks, aka Montreal-based singer-songwriter Al Spx, very well could have prepped and gotten away with a sophomore set similar to her 2012 debut I Predict a Graceful Expulsion. The introduction to the artist's self-described "doom soul" garnered much acclaim for its sparse arrangement of acoustic guitar, canyon-deep echoes of piano and the gospel-tinged tones of Spx's singing voice. As suggested by the newly released Neuroplasticity, its title a nod to the reconfiguration of neural pathways, the musician is pushing herself into a different direction via a score of new sounds.

A shift in the sonic approach is noticeable within the first notes of album opener "Broken Memory," which eschews the simplicity of an unplugged six-string for the unnatural, octave pedal-assisted melodies chiming out of an electric guitar. The spitfire trumpet work of Ambrose Akinmusire sizzles alongside a fluid rumble of drums, dwarfing the rhythmic minimalism of Cold Specks' debut. Spx, meanwhile, muses on "the strangest smile and silent tongue" of another before soulfully incanting the warning: "I will contain you, then cast you away like a broken memory." Equally explosive is "Bodies at Bay," another personal number which shifts from a perky, preparatory time-bomb tick into a shrapnel-shooting assault of half-time cymbal crashes, saxophone wailing, and Spx's observation of her subject: "Your eyes were like hollows of madness."

The open-air arrangements haven't been completely abandoned, as on "Let Loose the Dogs," a song which notably contains a chorus pleading to "stick to your guns." That said, the spacious track complements the honeyed-but-haunting, Billie Holiday-styled lilt of Spx's vocals with heretofore unfamiliar surroundings like the hopscotch hammering of a dulcimer and '80s-era synthesizers.

Spx's recent turn on darkened New York post-punk unit Swans' To Be Kind LP has the band's Michael Gira repaying Cold Specks with a pair of vocal appearances. He first entwines his brooding baritone with the host's cries on "Exit Plan," while closer "A Season of Doubt" steers the solo artist along a much doomier path than her debut did. Marked with French Quarter horns and unsettlingly airy piano chords, the heartbroken and hopeless track chills to the bone with Spx and Gira's closing couplet, "We move like wolves in the bleak night/And we dance like ghosts deprived of flight."

While many would have been happy to hear another low-key, graceful expulsion out of Cold Specks, the songwriter's synaptic shift towards bigger arrangements and broader instrumentation makes the ambitious Neuroplasticity a more satisfying listen.  [Tyee]

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