|Photo by: Amazon.com|
Key tracks: "Winter Solstice," "Hector"
Imagine if Adele, in some alternate occurrence of events, had decided not to publicly suffer for her painful breakups. What would happen if she instead decided to mold herself after the indie crowd and take on a generally more bookish demeanor? What if she toned down all the "Amazing Grace"-style wailing and limited herself to an octave range? Moreover, what if--gasp--she began to get pretentious and add a whole string orchestra to her repertoire instead of the trademark ivory keys?
For one, Adele would receive less platinum albums and Grammys. Nonetheless, Cold Specks seems ready to poise herself as Ms. Adkins' nerdier and less marketable sister. Her music puts just as much focus on the voice and the soul, but poises itself as too intellectual for trivialities like chasing pavements or finding someone like you. That's all right, because artistic integrity is worth a thousand "Rolling in the Deep" radio hits, right? Well..
I Predict a Graceful Expulsion is every closet poet's dream--educated reflections put under a spotlight and elevated to high art. On every single song, Cold Specks mastermind Al Spx chants out wordy obscurities with her modestly impassioned voice, building from a single guitar or piano to choirs and strings. To her credit, this album is a very competent attempt at such, but unfortunately works better as a glorified poetry reading than a set of compositions.
The result is kind of like soul, but feels restrained by literary ambition rather than pure feeling. Take the lead single, "Holland," which relies on a single minimalistic guitar line while Spx places a few gospel moves between her elaborately phrased lyrics about death. The chorus is more word repetition than a hook, and has no sense of rhythm until some basic timpani pounding at the very end. The result is a not-quite enthusiastic vocal performance tied to a not-quite melodic instrumental, resulting in a not-quite fulfillment of a not-quite song.
Even though the "tunefully spoken" lyrics draw most of the attention, Cold Specks sure takes care to craft inventive backing tracks. Tastefully arranged undercurrents of strings, ringing tension-inducing percussion and heavy-reverb guitars edge their way in at well-planned moments. These atmospherics are the redeeming quality of this record, without which it would have little need to be in the audio format.
What diminishes its effect, however, is the unseemly contrast between the music and the words. Oddly, she describes her sound as "doom soul," despite the absence of any feeling of nihilism in the music. Granted, lyrics like "O death, where is thy sting / Does it feed on eager limbs" are hardly twee, but when the music backing it is in a folksy major key, where exactly are Black Sabbath-like feelings supposed to be evoked?
As a singer, Spx is interesting to contrast with Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard--a similarly piped soul singer who also made her record debut this year. But if Howard used her fiery vocals to exorcise pain in an almost Robert Plant-like show of emotion, Cold Specks goes for far more subtlety to try to bring these words to life. This "subtlety" too often betrays "tepidness," and who wants their soul lukewarm? Gotta get it while it's hot, baby.
As a title, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion matches the content of this album perfectly--verbose, and expelling its contents pleasantly. Unless some more melody and grit are included in this process, Cold Specks will never reach the word-slinging musical heights of Bob Dylan. Or Adele.
Nice pseudonym though, Ms. Spx. James Joyce references FTW.
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