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YouTube framegrab of Cold Specks performing "Holland" from her new album "I Predict a Graceful Expulsion" during a live performance on Other Voices.

3 out of 4 stars

Cold Specks is a young singer from the Toronto suburbs who has a voice that evokes a place far south and a time far back. This is the kind of singing that John and Alan Lomax took down in the 1930s, as they drove around the South with a massive aluminum disc recorder that filled the entire trunk of their car.

Like many of those southern voices, Cold Specks sings for us and for God, and not necessarily in that order. The 11 songs on her debut album are riddled with Biblical formulae and scriptural allusions. When she sings, in the opening track, "take my body home," it's certain she's not addressing a promising first date, or a cabbie after a long night of drinking. When she intones "take it to the river," in When the City Lights Dim, she's not referring to a canoe. "I am a God-damned believer," she sings in Blank Maps, and in the ripe ambiguity of that phrase, you can sense that her relationship with religion and the religious is complicated and deep.

This God-ridden young woman first broke for the light of fame in Britain, when her single, Holland, landed her a spot last year on the BBC music program, Later… With Jools Holland (no relation, I assume). At a time when so much pop music is run through the fine filters of Pro Tools and Auto-Tune, a performer with the raw urgency of an old-time blues singer has a big vacuum waiting for her to fill.

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The voice is a reedy dark alto, easily given to bluesy inflections, and to powerful surges that suggest the God-seeking enthusiasms of the gospel tent. Sometimes a choir slips in behind that voice, and it's like iron filings gliding toward a magnet.

But mostly Cold Specks stays well away from the traditional backings of gospel music. Her default option is a two-fingered piano line, narrowly tethered to an octave, or the equivalent on guitar. It's a dirt-plain manoeuvre you can learn in a minute. Given the allusive richness of the voice, and the solid field-holler contours of her melodies, those spindly backings seem like very weak sauce.

Some tracks bulk up with more instruments, not always to good effect. When the Lights Dim starts with a glowing electric guitar line that feels right for the vocal, then expands to a band section that doesn't. Toward the song's end, the arrangement narrows down again to drums and bass, and the music swings back into balance.

That's the main problem with this album: The arrangements are mostly either meagre or unsettled. An indie-folk spirit moves through some of these tracks, and I just don't hear it bonding well with what Specks has to offer as a singer. She needs something shaggier and more proficient to hold up to her vocal heft and style. There are a lot of possibilities that won't drag her toward the sound of a retro musician in period costume. She and her producers just have to look a lot harder to find them.

I Predict a Graceful Expulsion

  • Cold Specks
  • Arts & Crafts

Cold Specks plays the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on June 2 (with Great Lake Swimmers), the Calgary Folk Festival July 27-28, and the Hillside Festival near Guelph, Ont., July 29.


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Not Your Kind of People

  • Garbage
  • Stunvolume/Universal
  • Two and a half stars

"You seem kind of phony," Shirley Manson sings, in a sing-along title track about authenticity that careens from a spaghetti-western opening to a spacey yet specific kind of hallucinatory pop. Seven years after its last disc, Garbage rises up full strength with doomy odes like Battle in Me and Man on a Wire, both hungry new studies in the band's skill at moulding messy guitar sounds into weapons blunt and satisfying. Big Bright World offers a fantasy realm that's completely inorganic and exciting. But there's a fatal flaw in the mix: Auto-Tune, which has sucked the reckless charm out of Manson's vocals, and groomed everything else to an absurd degree. It's like seeing a dear old friend who's had an extreme facelift. Welcome back, Garbage, but you seem kind of phony. Robert Everett-Green

Garbage plays the Phoenix Concert Hall in Toronto on May 28, and Montreal's Osheaga Festival on Aug. 4.


Death Dreams

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  • PS I Love You
  • Paper Bag
  • Three and a half stars

"I wish this summer was my last summer." That's from the song Future Don't Care, on the album Death Dreams. And the psychiatrist's notebook fills up. Paul Saulnier is the singer-guitarist half of the Kingston squall-rock duo PS I Love You, those young fuzz-bombers who've just released their second compelling record. The material is less melodic than the band's debut Meet Me at the Muster Station, even if Sentimental Dishes here recalls Head East's Never Been Any Reason. But if there's darkness at work, it's non-threatening. The terror is comforting, the big noise is never abrasive, and the fear – Saulnier yelps like a pepper-sprayed David Byrne – is nothing to fear. Play it loud, feel it, walk into it. Here's to final summers. Brad Wheeler

PS I Love You plays Hamilton on May 19 and London on May 21, with dates to follow in Fredericton, Charlottetown, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa and Kingston.


R.A.P. Music

  • Killer Mike
  • Williams Street
  • Three and a half stars

Killer Mike has long since repudiated his dark past, but although the Atlanta MC and former OutKast associate's fifth album isn't nihilistic, it's still grimy like a sewer pipe. JoJo's Chillin follows a low-down hustler through airport security, while Southern Fried is full of sex boasts and fat, swinging drums (not only did underground star El-P lace the whole album with his ominous yet old-school-referencing beats, he also drops a sizzling verse on Butane). Killer Mike also likes to get his ghetto prophet on, excoriating white America's corruption and brutality on songs like Reagan, but they don't dilute his swagger – hero or villain, he's still tough as nails.

Dave Morris


Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang and Sonata for Piano in B flat major, D. 960

  • Matthias Goerne, baritone; Christoph Eschenbach, piano
  • Harmonia mundi
  • Three stars

Baritone Matthias Goerne continues his survey of Schubert lieder here, the sixth of a projected 11 volumes, and the second with pianist Christoph Eschenbach. Schwanengesang may not be a true song cycle, but Goerne gives it a powerful emotional trajectory, beginning with a hazy Liebesbotschaft and growing ever more focused, reaching a peak in a harrowing interpretation of Der Doppelganger, whose unspent angst spills over into the final song. Goerne doesn't etch out a text like many lieder singers, although we do not lack detail in individual words. But so beautiful is his sound – dark, voluptuous and liquid in all registers and at any volume – that one might easily miss the intelligence of his singing. Eschenbach is not his equal: His accompaniments are workaday, his performance of Schubert's final piano sonata sentimental.

Elissa Poole

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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