The opening track of this, Emma Niblett’s sixth album It’s Up To Emma is about hunting down someone who stole your other half, and shooting them. As an anthem for the cheated on, it is probably a bit extreme; but then, Niblett is an artist who isn’t afraid to instill a hefty dose of emotion into her music, both lyrically and musically.
She’s also an expert in the kind of swampy, angry grunge-blues rock that just drips angst. Maybe there are not that many sunny days in Portland, Oregon where she lives and works now. Either way, it would be fair to say that It’s Up To Emma, so called because of her lack of partners in both a literal, relationship sense and musically on this album, is a lonely record, one where Niblett gets a fair few things off her chest.
It’s partly for this reason that much of the album feels so stark and isolated. Second Chance Dreams for example, with its PJ Harvey influenced guitar chords, has Niblett asking “what do you want from me?” before the drums come in. Her voice soars a la Cat Power and the song turns into a slice of ’90s grunge rock. It’s audibly cathartic for Niblett, and as she ends with the same refrain, there is a weariness and acceptance in her voice.
Things hardly ease up with All Night Long, which is about not listening to a recent ex when they are trying to explain away their indiscretions. Niblett attacks her guitar at the start, like it’s the floozy who stole her man, stabbing at the chords with a real vengeance before howling “Get up out of my way, leave me alone, cos I don’t need to hear her name, all night long”.
All this emotion is not without a sense of humour though. Niblett has a reputation for making very serious music, but not always taking herself that seriously. Her cover of Althea & Donna’s Up Town Top Ranking is a fan favourite and she often sports a different wig for each live tour. So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that lurking on It’s Up To Emma is a quite brilliant cover of No Scrubs by TLC. In keeping with the men – who needs them? theme, it is a clever choice of songs to interpret. Niblett doesn’t gloss it up – she delivers the lyrics with the same girl power bite of the original – just with a downbeat electric guitar and string section rather than an r&b beat.
Over the course of its 46 minutes, It’s Up To Emma has all the emotions of a particularly nasty break up. It gets angry, it’s reflective and it’s seriously bleak. It fizzles with the kind of resentment and angst you can only really understand if you have been on the end of a particularly awful split.
It ends with the impressive What Can I Do?, Niblett channeling the vocal acrobatics of Sinead O’Connor for a final, exasperated introspection. It feels like the high water mark, closing the album with one last push to explain her anguish to us all.
Scout Niblett may be tormented, but she does it well. This album changes nothing in terms of her previous work; if anything it’s more minimal and darker, but as long as she continues to feel the pain expressed here, her hurt is our gain.