Cold Specks at #RFF12
I heard Al Spyx and her band from blocks away. As I rode up on Norman, by green hipster fixed-gear bike I could hear her finger-picked chords floating over the entirety of Victoria Park, soaring on the breeze up Scarth Street, and coaxing their way into my ears. The closer I drew to the park itself the more apparent her voice became; thoroughly commanding the attention of pedestrians and pub-dwellers on the O’Hanlon’s patio.
Chaining up Norman on the outskirts of the park I made my way as speedily as I could to the proper booth to get my passes. As I picked my way through the crowd to the front of the stage to take photos I could hear the murmuring of audience members commenting on the still-unraveling performance.
“She’s pretty good as a folk singer,” commented one woman to another as they stood up front, soaking up every note. “She’s good, hey?” added a woman in the beer gardens as I as typing out notes. “Really good.” “She’s got a really powerful voice,” said another, adding somewhat disappointedly, “it’s a shame she doesn’t really use it.”
That’s not at all true. For the uninitiated, Spyx is the songwriter and frontwoman for Cold Specks, a highly-touted group that has their first (sort of) album out on Arts & Crafts Records right now, the gloriously-titled I Predict A Graceful Expulsion. Spyx likes to refer to their sound as “doom soul,” which is kind of like Elliott Brood calling their music “death country;” half-truths are sometimes more telling than whole truths. Her singing is the definition of soulful, or at least modern soul, which seems to be more vulnerable to melancholy than its historical forebears. The doom is also present but only in half-measures; the songs have plenty of bleak moments but the listener is also frequently rewarded with occasional, well-deserved uplifting moments, brief rays of sunshine slipping through the grey.
What Cold Specks sounds like on record isn’t that much different than what festival-goers experienced Friday night, but it is moreso. The doom part is apt, as most of Spyx’s numbers are dour, at best. A somewhat reluctant performer, she’s been known to inject a verse from the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air theme song to try and brighten the mood. She did that on Friday night, but it was done in the style of the rest of her music: a total bummer. Most of her songs start out quiet, building to a mantra-like verse, frequently a phrase repeated over and over while the music swells and crescendos. My wife would’ve sworn she was listening to Adele the one time I played her the record and I would generally agree with that assessment. While she doesn’t really bother with the more rollicking leanings of Adele’s latest, Spyx does go for the sometimes-discordant phrasing and orchestral arrangements that make the Brit superstar’s work so cathartically captivating.
Spyx’s best songs work every bit as well in a slightly-minimalized three-piece set-up presented at RFF as the studio treatment on the album. Most songs she finger-picked chords on her guitar and sang as forcefully as the songs required. Still, it’s hard to say that the set was captivating, really; her songs were slow, at times hushed, and likely sounded somewhat samey to those that weren’t listening intently. I was excited to see her performance and I was fulfilled knowing what I was getting into, but I can imagine it came off as somewhat boring for a good amount of people coming in cold.
Some subtle shifts differentiated a few numbers, however. Spyx relinquished her guitar for my favourite number from I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, “Sons and Daughters,” and her sidemen took up piano and percussion, plinking out chords while the bass drum pressed on unrelentingly, marking every beat of every measure. Focusing all her energies on her microphone, she clutched it in both hands, standing slightly back from the mic stand and swaying out of time with the music, shifting her weight from foot to foot, clenching her eyes shut as she reached for the more virtuosic notes. The song has an insistent energy and one of her catchiest melodies, and the stripped-down performance really pushed her singing to the fore (where it belongs).
But Spyx’s songs aren’t about virtuosity or verbosity or range. They feel more like exercises in exorcisms, with Spyx repeating key phrases over and over, exploring every note that can be found along the way, as a means of getting the sentiment out of her head. She ended her set with a song that I didn’t immediately recognize, a number that featured some of her most forceful singing. She laid herself bare for a few minutes, hitting her highest, most powerful notes yet. Then with a barely-audible “Thank you, Regina,” she was gone.
That duality makes me confident that Spyx’s best is yet to come. Her songs were actually written years ago, recorded even in a previous project, but re-worked in a more cultivating studio setting for this album. She plays them live with as much confidence as she seems able to muster, but more nuance will likely serve her well.
Regardless, an interesting way to open the show! Keep it coming, RFF!