Scout Niblett – It’s Up to Emma

Scout Niblett has been bobbing about the indie fringe for the better part of a decade, brimming with interesting ideas but never quite managing to harness them. Album number seven is well past the point one would expect an artist to pull it all together, which is all the more reason to trumpet the achievement of the stark, harrowing It’s Up To Emma. Here’s the rare musician who ups the intensity upon parting ways with engineer Steve Albini. Niblett’s learned his lessons of dynamics well but as her own producer is more sparing with the jagged shocks – which only heightens their impact.

The itinerant Brit, now residing in Portland, wastes no time re-introducing herself. “Gun” is a powerful statement of intent, the kind of opener that’s nearly impossible to forget – and that also risks mooting whatever follows it. “I think I’m gonna buy me a gun/ A nice little silver one,” Niblett muses to open the record. Over the course of five minutes, armed with little more than her voice, a reverb-laden guitar and an occasional drum slap, she stalks through a litany romantic recriminations, menacing without ever pulling the trigger.

Niblett repeats these lonesome, minimalist blues patterns throughout the album, though never with the same degree of sinister intent. She even admits to harboring hopes of reconciliation on “Second Chance Dreams,” and sees her betrayer as a damaged soul in his own right on closer “What Can I Do?” Somewhere in between, her totally re-imagined cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” is a canny thematic fit, even if it might seem a novelty if encountered out of context.

Niblett has long been cataloged alongside PJ Harvey, and the comparison has never been more apt. It’s Up To Emma plays like Rid of Me 2013 – it references the same Southern blues antecedents and follows a similar thematic arc, its rage and revenge fantasies giving way to introspection. Somehow Harvey’s songs are frequently taken as autobiographical while Niblett’s been afforded some distance, perhaps owing to her fondness for wigs. Speaking of which, check out the chilling video for “Gun” in which Niblett dons a Snow White outfit and wanders through a traveling carnival greeting unsuspecting patrons – it’s a great metaphor for her eerily imbalanced persona.

It’s hard to envision a male artist delivering a performance like “Gun” without sounding unacceptably sadistic. An exception might be Nick Cave, who’s inhabited enough character roles over time to buy himself creative license. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I find myself reaching for Cave’s Grinderman albums as the ideal chaser for It’s Up To Emma’s desolate blues tension. I have no idea whether Scout Niblett is play-acting or purging, but she’s tapped into a potent source. Hell hath no fury….

Scout Niblett
It’s Up To Emma
[Drag City]