Drag City dynamo’s sonic self-purification

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Illustration by Stephanie Stober

From uncooperative robot-slaves to spiritual self-destruction, singer Scout Niblett leaves no enigma unaddressed. With a child-like prowess, Niblett simultaneously subdues and stimulates with her brand of alternatively simplistic and complex sound.

The Nottingham native’s voice mirrors that of the haunting Chan Marshall of Cat Power, with an even more fleshed-out psychedelic vibe. Niblett’s raw innocence, as seen in “Dinosaur Egg” from her 2007 release, “This Fool Can Die Now,” is similar to that of Joanna Newsom, also on the Drag City label, who is known for her childish yet powerful presence. Niblett charms with slightly nasal vocals similar to Newsom’s, which are laced with a ferocity reminiscent of Kate Bush. The videos for Bush’s “Babooshka” and “Wuthering Heights” alone are testament that these three women are kindred in spirit.

Emerging from a three-year lag after her last album, Niblett released “The Calcination of Scout Niblett,” her first endeavor with the Drag City label, on Jan. 26.

“Calcination” further develops Niblett’s trend of dominant vocals and minimalist instrumentals with single-string accompaniment and distortion. The album adopts a more serious tone than her previous albums, delving deeper into spiritual self-examination interrupted by jarring electric guitar riffs and occasional percussion.

With riffs that fade into near nonexistence, “Just Do It” introduces an anxious intimacy with Niblett’s voice that dominates the album, until it is delivered to an abrupt, distorted end.

“Bargin” is arguably the most haunting of the album, reintroducing Niblett’s characteristic wail, which wanes in between harsh guitar riffs. “Kings” features more complex instrumentals with erratic coordination of drums and guitar, while “Pluto” is dominated solely by distortion.

The album’s namesake, “Calcination,” seems the most complete track, with a fluctuation of drums and guitar that differs from the skeletal structure of the remainder of the album. As the title implies, the song details self-destruction, presumably by fire.

The song graphically describes self-purification, opening with the line “Welcome to my self-made sweat box.” The song parallels the nature of the album, which, as it progresses, contains more and more breaks in vocals and guitar, as if the songs are physically being deconstructed. “Meet and Greet” is riddled with spurts of silence, ending the album with a sporadic climax of cymbals and distortion.

Though Niblett’s latest effort lacks the playfulness of her former albums, its maturity is both intriguing and, at times, frightening in its honesty. She subtly addresses everything from addiction to loneliness without teetering into cliché. With its chaotic presentation and exploration of unconventional musical terrain, Niblett once again proves herself outside classification.