Scout Niblett – I Am

Although Emma “Scout’ Niblett’s 2001 debut long-player, Sweet Heart Fever, did deservedly snag the affectation of a small group of followers, if truth be told, the Nottingham, England songstress found herself submerged in a sea of Cat Power clones. This situation is, however, certain to change with the release of this year’s sophomore effort I Am. As indicated on the head-spinning I Conjure Series EP, released earlier this year, Miss Niblett has truly come out from under the bushel of her Cat-ish contemporaries. Now just at home hammering out demented drum solos and jugular garrotting guitar chords as she is cooing over a stripped-down acoustic setting, Niblett has reinvented herself with admirable intent. Admittedly, as I Am shows, the newly revised battle is likely to inspire as much dislike as devotion, but at least that’s better than indifference, the enemy of positive notoriety.
Hooking-up with Steve Albini, by way of her close association with Songs: Ohia’s Jason Molina (Niblett contributed vocals to Songs: Ohia’s recent Albini-produced Magnolia Electric Co. LP), certainly has a lot to do with the raw minimal aesthetic of I Am. There are inevitable, but highly exciting, echoes of PJ Harvey’s Albini-assisted Rid of Me, particularly on the ravaging and ramshackle likes of “Drummer Boy” and “No-Ones Wrong (Giricocola),” wherein Niblett’s otherwise tender tonsils undergo a savage shredding. More arresting (and perhaps more subtle) is the beatific yet barbed “12 Miles,” which cross-breeds Sonic Youth with Sleater-Kinney for a slow-release mini-epic of twining guitars and twisted rhythms. Elsewhere, Niblett’s affection for sparse drum/vocal-only arrangements – as on the disturbingly infectious “Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death” and the just plain demented “It’s All For You” – are bound to cause a compelling and confrontational stir amongst those who insist on having their indie-rock with a side-order of guitars and bass. Naturally though, there are a few Chan Marshall-like passages – especially on “I’ll Be a Prince (Shh)” – but such moments of desolate delicacy are somewhat helpful in balancing out the sonic abrasions of the newer direction.
At times, though, the novelty of the new Niblett attack route does wear a tad thin, particularly when exuberance gives way to the spectre of lyrical diarrhoea, as exposed on “Fire Flies” (“Come on fire flies let me see you have sex”) and the tiresome “Texas” (“And Texas is hot / Even when driving at night / And Texas is sci-fi / And Texas is plain / And Texas is alright”). Furthermore, whilst there is much power to be harnessed from spontaneity and fuss-free production values, there’s still no excuse for failing to finish songs before committing them to tape, as the laughably scrappy title-track and the clumsily enacted “Boy” both illustrate.
There’s undoubtedly some room for improvement in Emma Niblett’s sonic retooling process, but much commendation should be given for attempts to break from traditionalism with such a mesmerising mad-eyed stare. Reassuringly, as Niblett declares on the aforementioned “It’s All For You,” her heart is certainly in the right place for further steps forward; “Give me magic / Give me music / Give me love.” Given more time that dream might be realised for us all, meanwhile I Am should keep thrill-seeking music listeners bewitched and baffled in equal measures.