For the past decade, Scout Niblett has managed to linger between singer-songwriter Americana and more experimental terrain. On 2001’s Sweet Heart Fever, she moved from the dissonance of “Miss My Lion” to the more intimate and minimal sounds of “Ground Break Service.” For 2003’s I Conjure Series, she accompanied her voice with amateurish drums, not giving a fuck whether the listener wanted to hear her learning the instrument as the tape rolled. “Shining Burning,” found on side B of a 2002 7-inch released by Secretly Canadian, features Niblett sounding like an old field recording and just as haunted as Elizabeth Cotten sitting in a dusty barn somewhere in North Carolina around the turn of the century. The combination of Mudhoney-heavy guitar-damage and Tibetan singing bowls on “Let Thine Heart Be Warmed” from This Fool Can Die Now confused more than it soothed weary critics, who wanted nothing more than to label her sound and forget about it. On this 2007 release she was joined on many tracks by fellow traveler Bonnie “Prince” Billy, which didn’t make the record any less lonely, tormented, and vengeful.
These ambiguities and unexpected transitions, however — along with Niblett’s playful creative drive — are what make her music interesting. Her sounds are a reinvigorating breeze blown into both the stuffy rooms of experimentalism and contemporary singer-songwriter banality. Although her lyrics alternate between the most frightening honesty and total gibberish, it’s not important whether she’s always making sense, because the experiences that motivate her — anger, revenge, heartache, loss, existential dread, the tragedy of being, alienation, loneliness — necessarily defy rigid formal rules. It only makes sense that Niblett would team up with Steve Albini, one of the staunchest individuals to ever sit behind the knobs, for the production of I Am, Kidnapped By Neptune, This Fool Can Die Now, and now The Calcination of Scout Niblett.
While gain-heavy and sludgy guitar phrases have appeared throughout Niblett’s discography — especially since she started working with Albini — this new album shows her at her most enraged yet. “Just Do It” — which has a spirit and sound similar to Magik Markers’ “Don’t Talk In Your Sleep” — kicks the album off with a massive dose of electricity that almost falls back into oblivion. When she sings, “The voices said just do it/ I think I agree/ Because someone’s got to do it/ And it might as well be me,” it’s not clear whether she’s talking about simply rocking out or decapitating some former lover.
“Calcination” is Niblett at her heaviest, capturing Nirvana’s Bleach-era snarl and adding a bluesy phrase that mirrors her vocals. Later, “Ripe With Life” matches its opening guitar phrase with pounding drums to evoke some of the finer moments on Melvins’ Houdini. And although Niblett occasionally slows things down on tracks like “I B D” and “Cherry Creek Bomb,” the record’s more aggressive sounds will be welcomed by those who are bored by the popular direction taken by most singer-songwriters who, hibernating in lonely, sad cabins, end up creating equally lifeless and forgettable songs.
Even at her most vulnerable, confessional state of mind, Niblett has never sounded unsure of herself, least of all on The Calcination of Scout Niblett. Given the title of the album and its overall mood, it’s hard not to imagine Niblett as taking us through an emotional transition. This is arguably the case on all her past releases, but here she sounds more focused, and her delivery more triumphant. This album shows Niblett breaking out as forceful as ever, proving herself as one of the most serious and self-assured artists of the last 10 years.