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Scout Niblett - It’s Up To Emma

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Artist: Scout Niblett

Album: It’s Up To Emma

Label: Drag City

Review date: Aug. 9, 2013

Scout Niblett - “Gun”

Scout Niblett has always known how to make use of negative space, whether it’s inserting long, reverberating pauses between guitar eruptions or stringing out elliptical phrases like connect-the-dots puzzles. When she’s on, she’s white hot intense, a head back in a banshee howl, a fingers slashing a Bleach-purloined guitar riff. But when she’s off, she’s dead quiet, stock still, unembellished. She’s a serial multi-tasker, not a simultaneous one. When she plays guitar, sings and drums, she takes them by turn, never picking up the vocal line until the guitar distortion has faded, not crashing into the drums until her last “oh-oh-whoa” has trailed away.

So, on It’s Up to Emma, her sixth album, songs like “My Man” and “What Can I Do” are a bit of a shock – lusher, denser, subtler, their gut-punching intensity smoothed with sustained sounds. She sounds, on these tracks, a good bit like Sinead O’Connor, which is to say, wild and unpredictable but within a sleeker context. There are bits of cello, more intricate guitar parts, rapid-fire, martial drum beats tucked within these songs, so that they sound less like the ninth round of a middle-weight boxing match, more like unusually passionate pop.

Niblett is working without Steve Albini this time, which may be a one factor in the turn toward ease, but she also seems to be contemplating actual pop. Exhibit A in this regard is the lone cover, a version of TLC’s late-1990s, mega-hit “No Scrubs.” The song in its original, ubiquitous, MTV avatar was all slinky empowerment, a no-you-don’t shimmy by three women who knew exactly what they did and didn’t want. Niblett’s version is way, way more vulnerable, full of self-loathing even. No, she doesn’t want his number. But yes, she will probably end up with him anyway.

And in fact, Niblett seems most diva-like (and most in control) not in this cover, but in the opening song. She maybe can’t pull off the you-can’t-have-me swagger of TLC, but she can definitely stride through the bombscape desolation of “Gun.” Here Niblett’s guitar is tuned to a coruscating growl, her voice stretched to (and past) its emotional limits, her intensity concentrated (not reduced) by the amount of time she takes to say things. (Scary things like, “I think I’m going to buy me a gun / A nice little silver one”). In the song, and on the album as a whole, Niblett positions herself as a loser in love, the one left behind, the one with wounds to lick. You can’t imagine her singing an emotionally balanced song, let alone a happy one, but you feel her triumph when she crescendos into the chorus, “You took your love away from me, and I am thankful, every day.”

It’s interesting – and maybe a measure of how far female-fronted rock has come – that Niblett sounds most like Sinead O’Connor in her least harrowing songs. In its day, O’Connor’s Prince cover “Nothing Compares To U” set the standard for self-lacerating emotional revelation, but Niblett takes that banshee howl several steps closer to the edge.

By Jennifer Kelly

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