[25 August 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
So you might be asking, after seeing the title of Cold Specks’ latest release, what is neuroplasticity anyway? Well, according to an online dictionary definition, and this is perhaps a bit wordy, the word refers to the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction. Put another way, it is the process by which it is thought human brains learn. Research on neuroplasticity is aimed at improving scientists’ understanding of how to reactivate or deactivate damaged areas of the brain in people affected by stroke, emotional disorders, chronic pain, psychopathy, or social phobia, and such research may lead to improved treatments for these conditions. Indeed, Neuroplasticity, the second album from Toronto’s Cold Specks, aka Al Spx, is a cure for whatever ails you, featuring haunting and smooth jazz, dark soul, R ‘n’ B and indie rock.
Spx was nominated for a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammys) and shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize for her 2012 debut, I Predict a Graceful Explusion, and was invited to play with Joni Mitchell at that singer’s 70th birthday last year, alongside the likes of Herbie Hancock. Spx is featured on two songs from Moby’s 2013 record Innocents, and not only contributed to Ambrose Akinmusire’s new album for Blue Note, but appears on Swans’ To Be Kind, which came out earlier this year. In turn, Swans founder Michael Gira appears on Neuroplasticity‘s “Exit Plan” and Akinmusire plays trumpet on much of the album. Cold Specks keeps good company.
Listening to Neuroplasticity may provide a sense of the familiar. In particular, Spx conjures up the stylistic tone and electronics of Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 masterpiece, Broken English. However, Neuroplasticity is not just a retread; instead, it is a work that stands up entirely on its own. “A Broken Memory” kicks things off with pitch black organ chords, and when the drums and Spx’s vocals kick in, she invites listeners to “dance, darlin’ don’t shuffle.” On this track, Spx courts the macabre, and your flesh might erupt in goosebumps from the starkness of the piece. But things lighten up with “Bodies at Bay”, the LP’s standout track and second single, which bares a passing familiarity to the indie rock of Canadian labelmates Broken Social Scene. (Mute is handling the record worldwide, but the album is out in Canada on the laded Arts & Crafts label.) The song, during the chorus, slows down and simmers, and the changes in tempo are startling. “A Quiet Chill” is a faithful replica of something off Broken English, with Spx’s smoky vocals and new wave synths rising to the fore, before the drumline rolls with a ferocious animal energy.
“Let Loose the Dogs” continues the sonics in that regard, as the song features a starburst syth line plucked from the ‘80s, and Spx again sounds so remarkably like Faithfull that you can practically see the torch being passed from one artist to another. First single “Absisto”, the Latin verb for withdraw or depart, again nestles quite nicely into BSS territory with its horns rising to the fore – and the song also boasts an incredible drop at the 2:38 mark as all the instruments briefly disappear before the song rises again into a torrid maelstrom of sound. It’s an astonishing moment on an album full of them, and it rolls quite nicely into the boppy “Living Signs”. However, the album’s most bracing instant comes at the very end with “A Season of Doubt”. For some reason, the song reminds me of “Shadows and Light” from Mitchell’s classic 1975 album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, though without the overdubs and synthesizer. Rather, the reference seems to be more of one ending a record with a haunting, elegiac piece. “I’ve got an unrelenting desire to fall apart,” sings Spx, in the album’s and song’s final line, and the song as a whole is a portrait of an artist on the brink.
Neuroplasticity is a tough nut to crack. This is the type of record that you could probably listen to 100 times and find something new and startling, which elevates it far and above many releases of its ilk. While the disc has many different stylistic tones, and is a bit all over the map, it still hangs together remarkably well. Imagine tUnE-yArDs without the dance beats, and the overall picture of Cold Specks’ sound emerges, though her music is certainly darker. However, Neuroplasticity isn’t necessary a long hard look into the abyss, as there’s enough giddiness and energy on some of the songs to prevent this from being a depressing affair. Still there’s a starkness to the proceedings as evidenced in “A Formal Invitation”‘s final line: “I smother you in silence / Until you choke on dead air.” Spx deftly walks a near perfect balancing act between the darkness and the light, and much of the material is experimental without being too abstract and unlistenable. There’s a real sense of adventure here, and it is fun to be swept away and carried along by the tide of Spx’s smooth voice and audacious songwriting. As much as Neuroplasticity is music for the head, it is also soul food and comforting in its own strange and enchanting way. What Spx has created here is essentially Art with a capital A, but it’s not inaccessible. Indeed, with its smorgasbord of texture and tones, Neuroplasticity is a real contender for Canadian Album of the Year, and no one will be surprised if the Polaris shortlist calls Cold Specks’ name yet again.