Canadian-born, London-based singer songwriter Cold Specks (a.k.a. Al Spx) has been drawing hushed plaudits over the last couple of years with her brand of spectral southern blues. Dubbed “doom soul” by Spx herself, the Cold Specks style revolves around a heady blend of simple, slow-burn melodies and a sepulchral atmosphere suited to combing the unforgotten past, summoning vengeful ghosts. And then there’s Spx’s voice, a gravelly wonder that tempers its power with a texture and tragedy that’s often reminiscent of Billie Holiday at her world-weariest.
As Cold Specks’ first full-length showcase, debut LP I Predict A Graceful Expulsion certainly makes a powerful first impression. Spx’s enigmatic vocals are backed by a phantom choir of muted pianos, acoustic guitar and the occasional dry gust of strings, exploring various dark corners of rural American music. ‘Send Your Youth’ channels rootsy gospel tradition, cutting straight to the core of suffering and struggle that lies beyond the genre’s euphoric dedications. “Oh my Lord, will you take my claim?” Spx implores at the end of the song, “This February child wasn’t made for the spring”. The brooding, humid tone of ‘Heavy Hands’ could challenge Nick Cave in the southern gothic stakes, while the stabs of brass on ‘When The City Lights Dim’ give Spx an opportunity to unleash a full-bore soul vocal with more muscular backing.
All these well-crafted moments make I Predict A Graceful Expulsion easy to admire. However, when you step back and take in the album as a whole, there’s a problem that makes it hard to move beyond admiration to full-blown infatuation. After dozens of repeat spins trying to pick a path to its emotional core, it’s impossible to deny that there’s a certain standoffishness running throughout, a cloak of mystery so thick that listening to it can make for an alienating experience. While Spx’s words are always artfully arranged and delivered, they often seem either too broad or too specific to resonate beyond surface level. Following the lyrics frequently feels like chasing shadows, glimpsing themes of family, mortality and regret only briefly before they slip away into the darkness. And as powerful and distinctive as Spx’s vocals are, they have a stoic nature that seems to conceal emotion rather than give it a voice. In the end, it’s like a magnificent locked door, another barrier guarding the album’s secrets.
Spx’s use of an assumed name, reportedly to protect the anonymity of her disapproving family, suggests that the album’s guarded nature is no accident. Whether it’s an artistic decision or personal self-censorship on Spx’s part, a sense of mystery doesn’t always have to be a cause for criticism – it would be unfair to expect every record to instantly offer up its inner workings for forensic examination. But in this case, Spx withholds to a degree that limits her potential to engage with the listener. Without that deeper engagement, the album’s musical arrangements struggle to linger in the memory for long. That’s a great shame, because there’s an inescapable sense that I Predict A Graceful Expulsion could have been so much more than it is, if only it hadn’t held so much of itself back.