Scout Niblett makes things more difficult than they need to be on Kidnapped By Neptune. But that’s exactly what she’s trying to do. Although Scout (real name Emma Louise) is blessed with a voice that would make pedestrian acoustic folk tunes more than listenable, she instead opts for a sort of avant-minimalism that yields occasionally electrifying results, but mostly leaves you scratching your head, wondering exactly what it is she’s trying to accomplish.
There’s nothing wrong with Niblett taking an unorthodox approach to her songs, especially since she did the whole low-key thing about as well as can be expected on her 2001 debut, Sweetheart Fever. She’s never been the most conventional songwriter, and most would probably agree that it’s better for an artist to indulge their creative curiosities instead of repeatedly rehashing the same ideas. But then you can enter the territory where being unconventional is the first concern, and writing quality songs becomes secondary.
Take “Hot to Death”, for example. For the first two minutes Niblett sings accompanied only by unobtrusive electric guitar that mimics the song’s vocal melody. Her voice teeters on the brink of becoming uncomfortably shrill, but each time it seems like she might go over the edge, she reigns herself in. While the song is simplistic, it’s not necessarily conventional. There’s an uncommon emptiness to it, and as the song fades to a close it works because what’s missing is ultimately as important as what is there.
Except it doesn’t fade to a close. A thunderous drum roll and the same distorted guitar that engineer Steve Albini used on those McLusky records come crashing in. The brute force is jarring and, as usual, Albini makes it sound downright cathartic. Niblett moans over the din for a minute or so before the song ends, for real this time. This addendum certainly catches you off guard, but that’s about all it does. It doesn’t really add anything to the song, and in fact takes away from the mysterious mood created in the first half.
And so it goes for much of the album. “Fuck Treasure Island” contains two elements—a drumbeat borrowed from any number of Phil Spector-produced (or Jesus & Mary Chain) songs and Niblett’s voice. It’s not a common sound and there’s something liberating about the sheer simplicity of it. Even though it’s hard to discern any meaning from her lyrics (par for the course), she carries a beautiful melody throughout, exuding both confidence and vulnerability. It’s easily the album’s highlight and the kind of song that few other singers could make work.
But then there’s “Safety Pants”, another song featuring just drums and vocals. After she chants “Come on honey, what are you doing to me?” for two and half minutes, you’re praying for one of those sudden shifts. But no dice this time. That’s the entirety of the song. It’s hard to believe that anyone besides Niblett would find this at all interesting.
Same for “Handsome”, a guitar-heavy instrumental that sounds like a Jesus Lizard seven-inch incorrectly played at 33 rpm. You keep waiting for Niblett’s vocals to come in, but it’s all in vain. She must know that her voice is her biggest asset, and there’s really no reason for this song—which while in terms of fidelity may sound like the Jesus Lizard, but in terms of actual quality sounds more like a couple of guitar and drum techs performing a sound check—to be on an album that’s already too long at 15 songs and nearly 55 minutes.
To be fair, the album’s first half does flow rather nicely. The time shifts and repeated “shoop-a-shoop"s of the title track are strangely hypnotic, and “Lullaby for Scout in 10 Years” is a winning slow-build rocker that is the best showcase for drummer Jason Kourkonis. It perhaps sounds like the White Stripes if a really pissed off Meg White took the microphone. But as the songs wear on, you quickly become tired of the unnecessary quirks. It’s possible that Scout has a great album up inside her. But it’s up to her to decide if she wants to make it.