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Scout Niblett
The Calcination of Scout Niblett Ben Graham , January 19th, 2010 07:32

There's much to be said for musical innovation, of course. We're always looking for records that push the sonic envelope, that experiment with new sounds; that blow our minds with noises, textures and structures that we've never encountered before. But there's also much to be said for records that, instead of going further out, just go deeper. Records that strip everything extraneous away, leaving you with just the flayed emotional heart; tender, beating, revealed. It's that vital essence, that raw, naked purity, that's often called soul. It's not dependent on either technical finesse or an avant-garde vision, and indeed often seems to thrive when both those qualities are de-prioritised. But it's something that surprisingly few artists of any kind exhibit, and it comes around so rarely that we often forget it's what we're really looking out for. Perhaps the most obvious example in the last twenty years has been Nirvana. They had their faults and flaws, sure, but when you heard Kurt sing and hit his guitar, you knew it was for real; he had IT, and in that instant all other considerations became irrelevant.

Emma Louise Niblett, who took the name of Scout from Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird, has been open about the influence Kurt Cobain has had on her writing, singing and guitar-playing since she began making records in 2001, to the extent that Nirvana's 'Verse-Chorus-Verse' is a staple of her live set. She's long been pursuing that same raw purity, and along the way has garnered acclaim and respectable sales. But her simple, minimal songs, usually backed by only basic guitar and drums, have never quite crossed over into the mainstream in the way that other comparable acts have. Her fifth album probably won't change that situation overmuch, but it is her strongest, most pared-down statement yet; the one in which she arguably catches up with her heroes, and makes what may very well be her masterpiece.

Produced as usual by Steve Albini, The Calcination of… works to much the same formula as Scout's previous records. But as the title suggests, she's transformed herself and her art through trial by fire, through burning and baking until only the absolute motherlode remains. Her most introspective and reductive release yet, this is also Scout at her harshest and most overdriven, kicking in with a heavy, churning guitar riff that cuts through empty darkness, feedback hanging in space, before dropping back to just a single string; not a new trick, certainly, but as powerful as ever here. The opening line says it all: "Someone's got to do it, and it might as well be me."

Scout has been mining, refining this groove throughout the past decade, and she's got it down now to the point where not a note or a moment of time is wasted. Everything is viciously reined in the absolute bare minimum necessary for the song to function, making it stronger and more streamlined as a result. It's all about restraint and the suggestion of power, the anticipation of noise in the silence. It's about the threat of violence, rarely wielded, and the raw vulnerability when her voice climbs the octave, pulling itself up onto the next ledge by its bloody, broken fingernails.

"Welcome to my self-made sweat box. This is where I take it all off. I've got to sweat it out, I'll cook those monsters out- I'm not coming out of here until my soul appears," Scout sings on the title track, before letting out a Kurt-like "yea-eah." It's Polly Harvey without the stylised gothic affectations, Nirvana without the heavy metal boy's club trimmings, and this may indeed be the reason why serious commercial success has so far eluded Scout. On many songs it seems as though the 36-year-old is openly battling with the notion of compromise- the haunting 'I.B.D.' (Inner Bullshit Detector), with its gorgeous vocal melody, and the catchy, nursery-rhyme-like 'Lucy Lucifer,' an ambiguous address to the great temptress forever whispering in her ear. 'Bargin' is typical in the way it seems to deal with the Faustian pact Scout made with the music business, and finds her digging into her soul to recover the original ideals, dreams and hopes that made her want to become a musician in the first place. "And some may say, you're not a little girl anymore, but becoming a child is what I'm waiting for," she sings, and her voice- untutored and untuned, but fragile and powerful- echoes almost alone in the bruised darkness at this record's heart, her guitar mere skeletal texture.

You almost wonder whether she's finally had enough of the whole trip. The climactic nine-minute epic, 'Meet and Greet', bleakly dissects Scout's whole experience of touring, playing shows, and meeting people on the road over the past decade. "Hey, when you gonna learn to play that thing," she quotes flatly at the end, following it up with an instrumental coda that switches from gentle picking to overdriven mayhem- simple, primitive, but a powerful and effective 'fuck you' nevertheless. There's nothing new here, for sure — just notes and noise and the spaces in between, and the oldest gimmick under the sun: heart and soul. But when it hits, you realise: it's all you really need.

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