No one needs to tell Scout Niblett to keep things simple — she’s already stripped her sound to the bone. Four of the 15 tracks on the British singer-songwriter’s new Kidnapped by Neptune (Too Pure/Beggars) feature just vocals and her drumming. At times, Niblett’s whispers, wails, and primal pounding conjure the musings of a Mississippi bluesman or an African griot. But only at times. On "Valvoline," which opens with repeated yells of "I am the driver!" over an unsteady disco beat, she sounds like a little kid banging on pots and pans in the basement for the sheer joy of it.
Elsewhere, the arrangements rarely stray from guitar/bass/drums. But whether Niblett’s cranking up metallic crescendi or marrying corkscrew Captain Beefheart guitar lines to lyrics purloined from Ben Jonson, her recordings sound both old and young. Likewise her vocals. Her upper register exudes the whimsicality of a seven-year-old on summer vacation; her lower notes convey the heartache of a woman who’s been through a few dark patches.
On the phone from her label’s London offices, Niblett, who plays T.T. the Bear’s Place this Wednesday, is reserved, her sentences peppered with ah and um. She does confirm the playfulness of the process that creates those voice-and-drums tunes. "Most of them start with me just messing around on the drums, and then a melody comes along. If you change to a different instrument than you’d normally use for writing a song, it changes the kind of song you write."
Niblett, given name Emma (she adopted Scout in tribute to the young heroine of To Kill a Mockingbird), picked up drums and guitar while at university in her home town of Nottingham. Her debut, 2001’s Sweet Heart Fever, was mostly a guitar-and-voice production; drums didn’t enter the picture until her 2003 EP I Conjure Series. She acquired both a reputation for raw power in concert and a fondness for blond wigs. The extra headgear, she explains, was "just a bit of performance art." Although she donned a wig for the cover of Neptune, she doesn’t wear one on stage anymore.
Three years ago, she left England for the US, where she’s been a peripatetic resident, wandering from Philadelphia to Bloomington (Indiana) to Oakland, where she now lives. She plans to stay in the US "as long as I’m legally allowed to. I prefer living there to living in England, though I’m not sure why. I’ve just always been attracted to America. And I don’t think I would’ve met the people in my band [guitarist/bassist Chris Saligoe and ex–Burning Brides drummer Jason Kourkounis] unless I was in America. Meeting them opened everything up. The sound’s been completely transformed."
Producer Steve Albini also helped in that department. Neptune is the second album Niblett’s made with him (2003’s I Am was the first). "When I’m recording, I like it to be as live as possible, and that fits perfectly with the way he works." Albini's involvement has also underlined the comparisons to PJ Harvey that she’s drawn for years — he helmed the mixing board for Harvey’s Rid of Me. Scout doesn’t mind. "Harvey’s first few albums are great, and they’ve definitely been an influence."
Then there’s Niblett’s New England connection on the new album: the lengthy, explosive instrumental intro on "Newburyport" leads into a quieter, more reflective passage. The only lyrics are "I went there with my baby, yeah." "That was a former boyfriend," she giggles. "He had lots of family and friends in Newburyport. It’s a beautiful place."
End of discussion. The good news is, Niblett’s music is more emotionally forthcoming than Niblett herself.
Scout Niblett + Grizzly Bear + Tigersaw | T.T. the Bear’s Place, 10 Brookline St, Cambridge | August 3 | 617.492.BEAR
Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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