The story goes that Al Spx – aka Cold Specks – is a false name, created by the 24 year-old Canadian to divert attention away from her real family name. However, it’s the fact that they simply don’t approve of her career in music, rather than actually protecting them that’s the issue, and consequently we’re left with the rumour of a backstory that hints at rejection, discouragement, and the desire to break free. It’s the wonderful kind of promotional fodder that a music critic laps right up.
And it might seem cliché for me to mention it right from the get-go, but it’s the kind of story that needs to be considered when listening to the music, as I Predict A Graceful Expulsion seems to form itself around this idea of a past life, and of Spx dealing with growing up and out of her family ties. The first lyrics on the album are “He left his mark upon my skin,” which could well be a reference to a singular person, or even the just the city or Toronto, which she has since moved to London from. Spx seems to be dealing with her troubles openly, but it’s easy to assume everything is linked to a morbid and terrifying past. “Take my body home” she continues during the chorus of “The Mark,” with a deep, low voice behind hers, like a last request to whoever finds her. She bookends the album with another version of the same idea, with “Lay Me Down”; this time round the backing vocals are almost angelic and light. She seems to find peace by the end of the album.
There’s an optimistic and hopeful tone, though, that seeps through every so often. She seems to point towards a sort of revolution from children: “Sons and daughters/ May you kill what my blind heart could not” she rallies on “Winter Solstice” while on “Holland” she informs the listener (or the enemy) that “We are many, we are many, we are.” But even if she’s not actually referring to an uprising, there’s definitely a desire to break free graciously. When she sings the album’s title over and over on “Elephant Head” it sounds like everything will end gracefully, even if it will cost her her family; she’ll still walk away with her head held high.
All this might not catch you on your first few listens; her lyrics are the kind that seep in after repeated listens. Her music follows suit, as producers Jim Anderson and Rob Ellis lightly orchestrate Spx’s lo-fi acoustic skeletons, adding brass and wind instruments. The music never gets in the way, and works pretty much perfectly to help the songs ebb and flow, and to heighten the best moments. On “Blank Maps” Spx delivers her most ferocious and memorable line, spouting “I am a goddamn believer,” as ticking pianos and harpsichords carry the track carefully upwards. “Steady” has drums, strings, and hammered piano chords, as Spx coos wordlessly before proclaiming “We have caught fire.” It’s not quite a blaze, but something is definitely ignited.
It should be said that what does catch you on your initial listen is Spx’s voice itself: it’s a powerful, smooth instrument, heavy with emotion, that can easily make you stop what you’re doing and pay attention (especially when she sings solo). It’s also steeped in gospel and soul influence, allowing it to flourish when there’s a full band behind her (“Winter Solstice,” “Steady”) or when it’s nothing but Spx in front of the microphone (the intro of “Heavy Hands,” the end of “Send Your Youth”). And really that’s all that is Spx looks like she’s going to do in the future: flourish.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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