Music

Cold Specks: Neuroplasticity

With its smorgasbord of texture and tones, Neuroplasticity is a real contender for Canadian Album of the Year.


Cold Specks

Neuroplasticity

Label: Mute / Arts & Crafts
UK Release Date: 2014-08-25
US Release Date: 2014-08-26
Canadian Release Date: 2014-08-26
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.