September 16, 2003

Scout Niblett "I Am"

A large percentage of the music released either by independent labels or DIY artists justifies its existence with the following tenet: that while it is good to possess creative inspiration and technical skill in equal measure, the former trait is definitely more important than the latter. This means that if given the choice between listening to the music of an artist who doesnít play or sing conventionally well, yet presents a fresher or different artistic viewpoint from his or her contemporaries and listening to an artist who stays in tune and on beat all the time, yet doesnít bring anything particularly new to the table, the former choice is the better of the two. Put simply, a Stephen Malkmus or a Tim Kinsella is worth as much to the average indie-rock fan as a thousand John Mayers. If the last three sentences struck any sort of chord in your heart, I would like to introduce you to your new musical heroine: Scout Niblett.

This English troubadourís second album couldnít have had a more appropriate title: I Am. As a document of self-actualization it is utterly perfect, as everything that makes Scout worth listening to is present here in spades. The album can be divided roughly into thirds. One third consists of the songs in which Scout is backed by a full band. These songs are the closest in spirit to those on Scoutís first album, 2001ís Sweet Heart Fever. Early Cat Power comes to mind when listening to these songs, but even then there are noticeable differences. Scoutís singing is higher and more assertive than Chan Marshallís, her melodies are more pronounced, and her arrangements are more dynamic and less repetitive. Some of it, like the screaming heavy-metal climax of ìDrummer Boy,î even ROCKS, which one could never say about Cat Power. When Chan Marshall raises her voice, it sounds like an introvert in a silent room trying to figure out whether the walls will echo the words back to her. When Scout screams ìI canít wait ëtil the morningÖI want to go now,î she sounds like sheís in your face with her hands around your neck. You will listen to her, damn it, and you will do what she says RIGHT NOW.

The second third of the album consists of songs which she performs solo with ukulele accompaniment. The ukulele sounds as if all of the strings are out of tune with each other. When Scout sings, though, her notes are in tune with the ukulele, and everything achieves some sort of indescribable consonance. Scoutís got a pitch-perfect voice and ten yearsí worth of experience playing guitar, and because of such, the full-band and ukulele songs sound comparatively normal. The songs in which she sings while playing drums are the wild card. Theyíll either make you run screaming from the stereo, or theyíll make you fall in love with her. There is no middle ground. About half of I Conjure Series, the EP she released earlier this year, consists of drums-and-vocals songs, but I Am makes it clear that those songs werenít mere experiments or flukes.

Scoutís been playing drums for less than two years, and you can tell from listening to these songs. Put simply, her drumming makes Meg White sound like Jimmy Cobham. Sheís got rhythm, but her beats are unsteady and peppered with screw-ups. Instead of covering up her technical deficiency, though, she embraces it. She specifically sought Steve Albini to record I Am because, in her words, heís ìthe king of drum sounds.î These songs are recorded crisply and cleanly, and it makes me feel as if Iím eavesdropping on one of her practice sessions as she plays and sings whatever comes to her head. Upon interviewing her, it didnít surprise me that a number of the drums-and-vocals songs on I Am were made up on the spot. These songs, though, are what truly put Scout Niblett in a class of her own. They find her at her most direct and enthusiastic, singing about the things that most frequently occupy her mind: love, music, death and America. Theyíre mantras that will play on endless loop in your brain for hours on end. ìBoy, show me all the love that you know!î ìYour beat kicks back like death!î ìHey America, in your first shoesÖwalk into me!î

Upon listening to these songs, most people would remark, ìTheyíre, but maybe she should wait until she really learns how to play.î They, of course, would be missing the point. If Scout waited that long, weíd miss out on the joy of listening to someone caught up in the rapture of spontaneous composition, the moments in which the compulsion to create outruns the desire for technical polish or perfection. Itís the same reason that critics creamed over all those ìlow-fidelityî bands back in the mid-1990s. So what if it doesnít sound professional: the happiness in her voice is palpable and the songs are GREAT. Scout Niblett has arrived, and youíd better pay attention.

--Sean Padilla

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