Concert preview: Cold Specks singer-songwriter shifts gears on the tumultuous Neuroplasticity

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Voices take the lead on “We Are Many (Revisited),” a jarring, stripped-down spiritual Cold Specks penned in the midst of a 2014 U.S. tour.

“Hands up/ Don’t Shoot/ I can’t breathe,” the Canadian singer-songwriter repeats mantra-like, conjuring the ghosts of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the other unarmed black men and women who have died at the hands of the police in recent months, sparking an ongoing series of nationwide protests.

“We were touring America last fall when all that shit went down. You could just feel the tension in the air, and it felt like the most natural thing to do — to sing those words — so I started singing,” said the musician, who opens for Sufjan Stevens at the Palace Theatre on Friday, April 17. “I’m pretty sure all black people remember the first time they’re called nigger as vividly as their first kiss.

“I was 7. We were playing tag, and I was shoved into the snow and told not to touch the other person, and the word nigger was yelled at me. You’d never think that in 2015 we’d still be having this conversation. That’s the most heartbreaking thing about it: the feeling that nothing is ever going to change.”

For the Cold Specks singer, who was born Ladan Hussein 27 years ago, and also goes by the name Al Spx, change has remained a constant.

The first Specks’ album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, from 2012, is largely fragile and introspective, filled with shattered tunes inspired by loss. Last year’s Neuroplasticity, in turn, proved far more tumultuous, tending toward comparatively noisy tracks like the organ-and-horn-driven “A Broken Memory” and the creeping “Old Knives,” which builds to a clattering finish that sounds a bit like a jazz trumpeter caught in the gears of some great, coal-burning machine. Pugnacious Swans frontman Michael Gira even turns up as a backing singer on a pair of tunes, his raspy baritone circling Spx as steadily and ominously as a shadowy Dementor.

“I became frustrated with the sparseness of the music, and, also, in the back of the mind I was annoyed with the [phrase] ‘hauntingly beautiful.’ Those two words were often attached to my music, and it bothered me,” said Spx, who grew up in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, raised by musician parents who emigrated from Somalia after meeting at a music school in Mogadishu. “I was frustrated with a bunch of things, and it probably came out in the music. I just wanted to make something very different.”

Photo by SteveGullick

Palace Theatre

8 p.m. Friday, April 17

34 W. Broad St., Downtown

ALSO PLAYING: Sufjan Stevens