Few albums are as aptly titled as Scout Niblett’s latest release, The Calcination of Scout Niblett. It’s not just the reference to calcination, which is a kind of purification by fire, a burning away of the volatile elements of a substance. That much is a no-brainer for the mystic-minded, catharsis-driven Niblett. But while listeners can expect sonic calcination, it’s no less important to realize that this is the calcination of Scout Niblett herself. Which is to say that listening to the album feels like eavesdropping on the audible writhing of Niblett’s pained spirit, not a universal sorrow.
Some of the intimacy is effected by the relatively minimal song structures. Most songs are simply vocals over distorted electric guitars, though some drums appear from time to time. A more grandiose effort with slick production would clearly have been made to be heard. This, on the other hand, is stark enough to be a diary written in a language one can’t always understand. What comes through, though, is Niblett’s determination to keep at the calcination and emerge cleansed and healed from whatever demons put her in this state.
Musically, Calcination is at its best when Niblett is most exposed. “Bargain” is one such song, Niblett’s naked warble evoking the likes of Jolie Holland. The sparse chords form the song’s backbone, working in straight strumming or Mazzy Star-esque bends. The song continues along this terrain until Niblett opens her mouth, wailing “Let me play in the morning / Oh let me play”. “Duke of Anxiety” is another moment of vulnerability and remains successful despite the familiar imagery of drinking and pills. “I.B.D.”, with its start of quiet arpeggios and aching vocals, is a crisis made sonic and oddly beautiful.
While there are no light moments or catchy hooks on The Calcination of Scout Niblett, there are moments that almost pass for levity. “Cherry Cheek Bomb” is one such number, including a guitar solo that’s a nice change of pace. “Ripe with Life” could be an early PJ Harvey track, and the smashing drums help make the song a standout. “Lucy (Lucifer)” is perhaps the track most likely to stay in listeners’ heads, given the well-timed drumbeat and Niblett’s rhythmic delivery.
The Calcination of Scout Niblett will never be a steadfast feel-good album, make-out album, or even an album for much of anything aside from burning along with Niblett. Despite the lack of hooks and the relative monotony of the music, this album is compelling. Niblett’s earnestness transcends the criticisms usually levied at similar music. Besides, for once, an album lives up to its title perfectly, so expecting anything but burning catharsis would be foolish.