Scout Niblett – This Fool Can Die Now

Scout Niblett
This Fool Can Die Now

In many ways, it’s strange that Emma ‘Scout’ Niblett isn’t a better-known figure beyond her cult fringe following. Despite the generous collaboration-based sponsorship of Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.), Howe Gelb (Giant Sand, The Band of Blacky Ranchette) and – on this new platter – Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), she remains intractably immune to the imposition of minor-celebrity status. By now, Niblett could quite possibly have become the next Cat Power, a back-to-basics PJ Harvey or a new Kristin Hersh. Yet, even though she has invited comparisons with such fine feminine luminaries, she continues to be bravely unwilling to solidify her music into something too easily definable or marketable. So with this fourth album – the forlornly-named This Fool Can Die Now – she may have found a more refined and maturing perspective for her songs, but her muse remains defiantly oblique.

The character of the long-player is aptly codified in its bizarre cover image, which finds Niblett stood in a stream wearing medievalist attire and firing Superman-copyrighted lazer beams from her eyes. In essence, This Fool Can Die Now is a fusion of the rustically-arcane and the brutally-urbane. The tracks recorded as duets with Oldham will certainly pique the ears of the Americana-loving crowd; and the duo deliver on expectations. The folk relic “Do You Want To Be Buried With My People?” is mired in murky tragedy, the onetime Marilyn Monroe-sung “Return To The River” is wispily-romantic with its accompanying strings, Van Morrison’s “Comfort You” becomes a brittle torch-song made-for-an-oddball-two and Niblett’s own “Kiss” is smacked with febrile desperation and longing. Neither Niblett nor Oldham, it must be noted, put in any polish or perfection into their performances, meaning that this quartet of cuts may still require some quarantined-staggered listening for the previously unconverted.

However, the Oldham-adorned foursome only account for just around a third of This Fool Can Die Now, leaving Niblett to prowl freely over the rest of proceedings, with varying-outcomes. Her curious compulsion for solo drumming and singing without back-up players (first aired on her I Conjure Series EP) rears its head on the sketchy but endearing “Moon Lake”. An undying deep-love of grimy grunge-rock rackets-up the amplification levels on the lurching “Let Thine Heart Be Warned”, the discordant “Your Last Chariot”, the unnerving “Nevada” and the harsh “Hide And Seek”. In-between such animated occurrences, the remaining bulk of the record is given over to desolate slow-mo balladry. Some of which comes wrapped-in stirring tenderness (like the piano-led “Fishes And Honey” and the yearning string-coated “Black Hearted Queen”), as well as difficult-to-digest dirge trappings (the bleak off-key “Baby Emma” and the frankly weird “Dinosaur Egg”).

Throughout this 14-song collection, there’s a feeling that more judicious self-pruning could have made for a shorter, tighter and more listenable set. Although it might come with the uncomfortable risk of compromise, maybe a less ‘hands-off’ producer (i.e. not her regularly-favoured Steve Albini, at the studio controls again here) could help forge a less gangly gathering of stronger recordings for Niblett next time around, in order to pull her back from persistent and somewhat counter-productive seclusion. That said though, This Fool Can Die Now does still have a scattered but rich spread of inspired and engaging material. Proving that Emma Niblett is a rare talent worth further nurturing, though perhaps with a firmer paternalistic hand.