Release Date: May 21, 2013
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Though there was precious little excess to burn, Scout Niblett subjected herself to trial by fire on her previous release, The Calcination Of Scout Niblett. On It’s Up To Emma the Portland-based songwriter sticks to the same stark rendition of electric blues, but forgoes that prior album’s alchemic rituals and caustic warm-ups. Instead, with her sixth full-length, Niblett isolates the procreative element that binds generations of rhythm and blues—love gone wrong—and uses those pulverized hearts as a catalyst for the most potent album of her career.
Sometimes, the most riveting recordings are born from catharsis, overwhelming events in an artist's life that cannot be contained. What makes them resonate is the way they intersect with the subjective experience of the listener. Scout Niblett's It's Up to Emma fits the bill. The cover photo depicts a couple kissing: the woman's eyes are closed in bliss and hunger, but she's being watched by her object of desire with something akin to curiosity.
Scout Niblett's latest album opens with a murder ballad, "Gun", which reveals its call-to-vengeance line-by-line. It begins uninnocently enough, arming up, then moving to intent, and finally motive: "Maybe you'll be holding her hand/ Or watching her shitty band," she snarls, drawing out "band" in a way that displays the full plumage of her disgust. She strums slowly, unfancily, as she recounts a lover's bed-hopping betrayal.
Though her records have previously explored a variety of topics ranging from the overdue birth of a baby dinosaur to the musical powers of the planet Neptune, as the title of her sixth album makes clear, Scout Niblett – or Emma, to her mum – has finally turned her gaze inwards. The remarkably brazen It’s Up To Emma does a lot to set alight any notion of kookiness that might continue to plague her but Scout Niblett is still better appreciated as a formidable all round oddity than a particularly dazzling musician. Simplicity is too long a word for what’s going on here; her astounding wail of a voice is rarely accompanied by anything other than a guitar or drum, and only quite rarely are both of those instruments playing at once.
The opening track of this, Emma Niblett’s sixth album It’s Up To Emma is about hunting down someone who stole your other half, and shooting them. As an anthem for the cheated on, it is probably a bit extreme; but then, Niblett is an artist who isn’t afraid to instill a hefty dose of emotion into her music, both lyrically and musically. She’s also an expert in the kind of swampy, angry grunge-blues rock that just drips angst.
Bearded guitar shop employees would no doubt scoff at Scout Niblett’s ‘technique’. Granted, her guitar/vocal/highly intermittent drumming approach is sparse, but deliberately so: if anyone tries to call this ‘lo-fi’ or ‘outsider music’ they’re being lazy or dimwitted. ‘It’s Up To Emma’ references both her real name and the single-minded spirit that fuels this sixth album.
Scout Niblett has always known how to make use of negative space, whether it’s inserting long, reverberating pauses between guitar eruptions or stringing out elliptical phrases like connect-the-dots puzzles. When she’s on, she’s white hot intense, a head back in a banshee howl, a fingers slashing a Bleach-purloined guitar riff. But when she’s off, she’s dead quiet, stock still, unembellished.
Anger is generally defined as a destructive force, one that will singe before it fades, a wildfire of pain that if left unchecked only brings greater pain. It certainly doesn't usually result in something delicate. And yet, sometimes, sometimes unexpected things happen. It's Up To Emma is as blatant an intimate reckoning with betrayal, anger and pain as it gets and yet it's Scout Niblett's most sonorous, most beautiful album to date.