Scout Niblett - It's Up To Emma

by Daryl Worthington Rating:8 Release Date:2013-05-20

When listening to any of Scout Niblett's albums, from her debut Sweet Heart Fever to this, her sixth album, the listener is made to feel like a voyeur. There's an intimacy and rawness to her music which makes one feel as though these songs are being heard by accident, perhaps stumbling into a cabin in the woods as a young woman sings to herself. You know you should leave, that these songs are personal, but somehow it's too captivating to walk away.

Opening track 'Gun' is murderous through its sparseness. Murder ballads are of course an ancient song form, but this one is particularly heartbreaking. Niblett's faltering delivery means revenge fantasies can't hide the confusion and heartbreak which has triggered them. The contorted metal guitar after Niblett sings, "She took your love away from me and I am thankful' is the sound of a person not knowing what to feel. The desolate stabs of snare drum and subject of the song bring to mind Shellac's 'Prayer to God', but if that song was turned in on itself. This isn't a public declaration of revenge, rather the sound of putting on a brave face.

More than her previous albums, there is something almost ritualistic about this collection of songs. Tracks are built on a similar basis of intently strummed electric guitars and minimalist pulsing percussion. Colour and subtle variation is provided, whether through the marching snares on 'Woman and Man' or the strings on 'Can't Fool Me Now', which are best described as sounding like the quartet which carried on playing as the Titanic sunk.

However, the songs float into each other like one long cycle. The repeating chorus of 'My Man' with its "woah-oh's" becomes almost chant-like. Repetition is used in a way reminiscent to Jandek, but more polished and less abrasive, opening up to the listener rather than distancing them.

The completely unexpected cover of TLC's 'No Scrubs' shows so much of the album's strengths. This quintessential slab of late-90s R&B is turned into a haunting, looping folk piece. The intimate production and the male/female duet vocals gradually build the song into something far removed from its disposable pop origins. The lyrics might be the same as the original, but the delivery and execution make it seem much more personal, a new context giving it a new meaning.

Let's be honest, there are a lot of singer/songwriters about, and their earnestness can sometimes become a little galling. Niblett, however, has a depth which takes her beyond the majority of her dinner-party-friendly contemporaries. The songs on It's Up to Emma have a stark intimacy in their evocations of loneliness and heartbreak which make it impossible for them to drift into the background. The brutal displays of emotion feel like a hardcore band, the bombast and noise replaced with another kind of honest simplicity.

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