After gorging on year-end lists to the point of indigestion (but only fleeting), I carefully culled those lists and went on a binge of mini-epic proportions. And I’m now here to tell you about a few of the best of these overlooked (by me, ‘til now) albums.
COLD SPECKS is another “band” that’s really just one person – in this case, a 24-year-old woman who doubles-down on the anonymity by using a pseudonym, Al Spx. She’s from Ontario with a deeply religious background and the stage name is reportedly her attempt to hide her secular career path from her folks. She’s referred to her style as “doom soul” and “gothic gospel.” Genre-naming be damned, she’s created an impossible-to-ignore debut, I PREDICT A GRACEFUL EXPULSION.
At the center of any discussion of Cold Specks is her voice. It’s got the currently de rigueur indie chanteuse coldness (Cat Power, Lykke Li and the like), but she’s also got the fire of her gospel roots giving primary color to her tone. It’s smoky at times, bell-like at others, vulnerable and defiant by turns. It’s never less than enthralling, and it’s never showy or vain.
Her songs are consistent, but they evince careful thought and attention to detail so they avoid repetition. Her backing band is called upon singly (with single string guitar or reverbed piano) and in groups (drums, strings and backing vocals that come upon you with surprise that turns into sweet inevitability). Most songs are dour and severe, with glimpses of sunlight and redemption breaking through on occasion to startling effect. This is a record for reflective times, when your constitution is sturdy but far from ebullient.
Lyrically, she speaks in oblique poetry, best understood by remembering her spiritual origins. They’re sprinkled with Biblical references, direct quotes and indirect allusions. I think I got a handle of sorts on her themes when I read about her history – a sort of key. It’s like when a friend shared his insight into the movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – that it’s a story told through a child’s eyes – with all the wonder, confusion and grasping to make sense of it all that attends a child’s perspective. Here, Ms. Spx is dealing with her spiritual doubts and what some close to her no doubt see as blasphemy. It’s dark and painful at times but worth the struggle to come to terms with. A faith without doubt is cheaply won.
Far from the church and matters spiritual comes MELODY’S ECHO CHAMBER, another essentially one-woman “band.” Parisian Melody Prochet was classically trained and then began performing her pop-rock songs in My Bee’s Garden at 19. Several years later she caught a Paris show by Tame Impala, the Aussie band that is two albums into its psychedelic revival/revitalization project. Impressed by their madness-methodology, she struck up a friendship with Kevin Parker of the band and brought him a batch of songs in demo form. She wanted him to “demolish” and then reconstruct them. Done and done.
On the self-titled debut of this aggregation, look for the hallmarks of Parker’s band: blown-out drums, shredded guitars, straight-ahead limber and rock-solid bass (John Entwistle-inspired?), analog synthesizers – check, on all of them. It’s a winning sound once you realize that its shapers aren’t out to alienate, but to lay down a spacey groove that envelops rather than assaults. Ms. Prochet’s lilting voice never strains past its comfort zone, and she stays true to her songs’ catchy melodic cores. Parker’s wild surroundings provide the spice, while she hues close to pop’s prime meridian.
Her themes of love lost and found are pleasant but mostly incidental to the proceedings. She is out to create a soundscape of dreamy pop prettiness shot through with freaky grunge, and she succeeds wildly.
JOHN FULLBRIGHT is a 24-year-old singer-songwriter form Okemah, Okla., with years of performing under his belt. He’s said to revere Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark, so how can he not have a leg up? His first effort, FROM THE GROUND UP, is a thoroughly enjoyable feast of country blues released on a tiny and partly self-owned label. Such are its merits (and some damn good luck, no doubt) that’s it’s garnered a Grammy nomination for best Americana album.
The album is recorded in a pristine room, but with plenty of space between the instruments and voices. It’s a perfect setting for his songs of God, Satan and the joys and foibles of earthly concerns. He lets God speak for himself (and lets Satan get a rebuttal in) on opener, “Gawd Above,” and some may do more than quibble with Fullbright’s take on the dialogue; but can’t God have a sense of humor also, especially considering His omnipotence? Other religious motifs are sprinkled heavily throughout, and they are never preachy or mocking in tone.
The music serving as a vehicle for Fullbright’s ruminations is stellar. Serious guitar crunch and inventive lead solos gird the rockers, and better-than-composer piano accompanies the ballads. Organ splashes and harmonica wails provide welcome accents. His voice has an everyman quality, sounding like Todd Snider at his lighter moments, Chris Knight at others – but he’s got his own thing working. And it’s a winner, whatever the Grammy results.
There are of course a whole lot more overlooked albums from 2012, and you should really hunt for them in your spare time. I’m turning the page to the new year, and prospective releases already have my mouth watering.
– Dave Norman is a local attorney who has been smitten with music since he could hear his first transistor radio turned to WTIX, and is thankful for his ability to share his love with you.