For those not up on means of industrial material processing, calcination is the process whereby ores and other solids are heated to drive off volatile substances, as is done to lime in the manufacture of cement. But on her Steve Albini-produced sixth album The Calcination Of Scout Niblett the minimalist, grunge-inspired singer-songwriter shows no let up in volatility and maverick artistry.
Niblett has always been a difficult sell. The off-the-wall magic of her intense live shows is difficult to capture on a recording, and her albums might be the sort of thing you listen to once, then ever after pass over in fear when scanning through your record collection. Although 2007’s This Fool Can Die Now, which featured a string of ballad duets with Will Oldham and Niblett toning down her feline, howly vocals, made for a largely very listenable album.
The Calcination is something of a return to earlier form. Songs typically take the form of one guitar and one vocal. Just Do It opens the album in quite restrained style, but the track Calcination creeps along with delicately bluesy guitars crashing into explosions of drums and Niblett’s caterwaul. It’s worth pointing out that Niblett has, in the course of her career, made caterwauling a valid vocal style.
To say the album is dark is understatement. The mood is not just of an absence of light, more a radiant blackness. IBD is a sinister and violent collision of divinity and vulnerability: “They throw thunderbolts with the best of them, they like to show off their incisors, I put it down to their hunger”. The stop and start song is delivered in the voice of a drugged out Miss Piggy admonishing some children having a noisy kickabout with the head of a dead dog.
But perhaps more than on any other release in her career other than This Fool… Niblett makes something that is a joy to listen to rather than a freakish curiosity. The noisy crash of Cherry Cheek Bomb has been around for a very long time, but it’s grand to see it on an album. A couple of tracks border on the ridiculous; Lucifer’s drum and voice composition imagines the devil himself with some castanets and the lyrics “Lucy Lucy Loo, Lucy Lucifer” seem a little lazy.
But on the whole the tracks achieve a sort of minimalist profundity that one can’t imagine any other artist trying to create, let alone succeeding in any listenable way. Duke of Anxiety being a particular joy opening with the wry tragic line “Why would you think, that you make me drink? I’m a drunk. Reasons I don’t need – just like you”.
Sure, Scout Niblett is an acquired taste, but so many of the best things – olives, anchovies, nipple clamping – are. And if you have ever been tempted to acquire a taste for Niblett, The Calcination…, along with This Fool…, would be a good place to start.