Review by: Lex Alfonso
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Jangly guitar leads. Take a shot.
After over half a decade of listening to albums as intently as a guy with no life might, I’ve developed certain Pavlovian responses to things. To wit, a lot of Neuroplasticity triggered an immediate and inexplicable sense of dread and exasperation. I slumped into my seat, blew out a short puff of air and my eyes rolled right around my head as if independently. This record is so ‘2010s indie’ that it is destined to age poorly. Every aspect of it feels like it was taken from another, more successful record. Post-rock guitar leads introduce the lion’s share of the tracks here. Bright synths chug away behind the mix. Vocalist Ladan Hussein croons away, fighting against a beating war drum. By 2014 these traits have been used and re-used so often they’re starting to look like Bill Buckner in the tenth inning. However, like Bill Buckner, it could just be that they’re misunderstood.
The real tragedy of Cold Specks is that, for all her unoriginality and for all the routine of it it’s not a bad record. Misguided? Sure. But through its faults it’s actually incredibly difficult to dislike. Be disappointed in, perhaps, but not dislike. It’s the consistency, partially. Consistency is the one trait it chose to be contrary to its predecessors. It’s short, for a start. That’s not the snooty “self-important-critic-who-has-given-up” critique it sounds like, either. I’m not sure when the world collectively decided to shun any LP that dropped below the arbitrary length of 45 minutes, but can we get over it, already? The album is paced brilliantly, each idea and concept present just as long as it needs to before gracefully segueing into the next song. There is an attention to detail in the way these songs fade in and out that demonstrates a commendable commitment to the LP format. Each song concludes as if momentum is taking its course. Instrument after instrument stripping itself away until the song’s core essence is all that remains, lingering long enough on the palette to make its point before coming to a complete stop. The next track will, invariably, begin in a similar way, layers and depth added as your palette acclimates to it.
The record seeks to evoke an atmosphere more purposeful and paced than most of its contemporaries. Cold Specks describes herself as “doom-soul” and it fits. I’m hardly going to lobby for it to be a legitimate genre (I’m looking at you RateYourMusic.com) but when it works it works. The most direct comparison one could make (outside of the 2010s indie canon, at least) is Scott Walker’s pop opus Scott 3 for the kindred intent to favour atmosphere over melody. Neuroplasticity’s compositions seem almost secondary to the production and I can respect that. The melody only exists for the soundscapes to canvas themselves on and to give the voice a purpose. A proper balance might be appreciated by some but in a full length format Cold Specks’ priorities function perfectly well. Long story short, you won’t ever remember a tune from Neuroplasticity but you won’t mind.
Similar apathy cannot be lent to the production, sadly. The mixing is a bit all over the place. Its sole constant is, regrettably, the ear splitting favouritism it shows its rhythm section. If there’s one ongoing downfall to Neuroplasticity, it’s that. The rhythm section is garbage. It does everything it can to sabotage the atmosphere the record attempts to cultivate. It mostly succeeds, tragically. Each snare and each cymbal and each kick screams over the mix like it has something to prove. It shouldn’t be so proud of itself. The drumming is very rigid and awkward and feels purposefully contrary to the music. One would think a producer would want to hide that but, alas, here it is for all to see. It gets to be that in some tracks it’s the only thing you can hear. The only other instrument that even compares in terms of volume is Cold Specks’ voice itself. Certainly more understandable, but so many songs feel like adequate instrumental sections whispering meekly behind a duelling cacophony of soul crooning and drum rolls. The balance isn’t there. For something priding itself on atmosphere there’s really no excuse.
In the bigger picture, however, Neuroplasticity fails simply for its lack of ambition. It squanders a perfectly good vocalist and a perfectly good concept on being just more milquetoast indie malaise. Everything about it seems design-by-committee, born not out of a desire to be compelling or progressive, but out of determined artistic counterfeiting. “Post-rock is popular”, it seems to say, “let’s have post-rock instrumental sections.” “Synth-pop is coming back”, it continues, “How about we lead Let Loose the Dogs with some of that?” It’s a shame, too. It’s a perfectly functional record. But that’s just it. Far and away the best track is the last one, because it’s the only one that threatens to have a contrary idea. It becomes comatose, static, foreboding and it’s really rather thrilling. The rest of the album never comes anywhere close to that level of intimacy or depth. It never has an idea as big as “intimacy”. So while you can concede that the craft and workmanship put into it is perfectly fine, you must also acknowledge that it’s also the album’s biggest fault. Maybe it shouldn’t have been “fine”. Maybe it should have had the ambition to alienate or progress or do something that suggests it has humanity. What we’re left with is a beautifully written, beautifully composed, beautifully performed, beautifully sung carbon brick.
You might admire a carbon brick, but you’ll never love it.