On a cursory listen it would be easy to dismiss Emma “Scout” Niblett as another PJ Harvey-fixated female singer. Her raw, brittle blues is like the membership card to a Girl Guide group run by Captain Beefheart and Patti Smith. If Harvey is the patrol leader and Cat Power the second in command, then Niblett and The Duke Spirit‘s Leila Moss are the new recruits.
When Scout sings “Until then I’ll make my little noise, until then I’ll make my fucking noise” on the closing Where Are You, it’s obvious that she would be kicked out for refusing to swear the oath to play nothing but the blues. Niblett has a free spirit that appears to buck convention and pursue a path that is hers alone.
Yes there are plaintive blues guitar figures, shrill emotional vocals and dry thumping drum but this is different – this is odd, idiosyncratic and divorced at times from the idea of conventional song writing. Niblett has taken her influences and, either by design or through technical limitation, fashioned a unique and fascinating record.
Where the Velvet Underground during the Nico period seems to be the template that the vast majority of female-fronted indie bands use, Niblett seems to have crossbred ’90s grunge and theDIY aesthetic of The Slits and The Raincoats. A one-girl riot act. It’s not such an odd hybrid, The Raincoats where one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands, he even wrote the sleeve notes for their CD reissues.
Scout Niblett’s vocals can be furtive and flirty, gleeful or crammed with spite. The lyrics set up a complex dichotomy between her baser feral instincts and a coy wide-eyed innocence.
The most successful tracks are those that are tied to her primitive drumming style. Kidnapped By Neptune, Fuck Treasure Island and Valvolive are all anchored to simplistic drum patterns. Hardly rhythm tracks, they’re more a set of clattering repeated motifs that sound like they were hammered out on papier maché drums. The songs become tribal in nature, the lyrics repeated like a mantra in short haiku style verses. The guitar playing on these tracks is scratched out and obtuse. Notes bent, chords chopped, the rhythm replacing melody at the centre of the songs. The drums and voice floating in the void detached from instrumentation. A kind of bleached out indie dub without baselines.
On Lullaby For Scout In Ten Years the stumbling drums and bouncing Pixies-bass drop out of the mix, the melody is carved out in a tinny guitar line. And then at around three minutes in you get full Steve Albini magic. Crunching, distorted guitars drums that drill like a headache and blistering torn vocal chords.
Albini’s trademark production brings a fragile dry intensity to the material. The guitars are crisply and cleanly recorded the vocals uncluttered and clear. The production compliments Niblett’s fragile musical skills.
It doesn’t all succeed. Where Scout’s muse has been shoehorned into more conventional song structures the results are disappointing. It seems to be a case of: get your riffs out for the lads. These are misguided attempts to rockout. The sludge fest of Good For Me and the stupid riff-heavy Handsome come across like third place entries in a local bands competition.
When given free rein and when she’s playing to her strengths this record is a delight. It even contains an Albini-produced piano ballad. This City is the sound of Eric Satie on Temazepam. Enjoy.