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.
Never composed of filler or fat, Emma “Scout” Niblett’s brimstone blues have nonetheless struck an uneasy balance between near-contemporaries (PJ Harvey, Kurt Cobain) who directed their processes inward and more distant behemoths (Sabbath, Zep) who projected way, way out. “Just Do It!,” the opening track on Calcination, immediately summed up this sometimes unwieldy amalgamation: the cheeky titular pun at odds with the seething vocals; meta-aware, planetary lyrics at odds with the visceral minimalism; a prototypical Dry/Rid Of Me riff at odds with Niblett’s intention to forge a singular artistic persona.
It’s Up To Emma reaches beyond these grunge and metal touchstones to the scorching torch blues of Big Mama Thornton, the record purely focused on desire and the messy aftermath that leaves lovers wanting salvation or second chances or revenge. “Gun” opens It’s Up To Emma with Niblett’s fiercely bent notes and harrowing vocals—a woman scorned, a woman armed—the threat of payback anything but idle as Jose Medeles attacks his drums with brutal precision. Further intensifying the album’s sexual dueling, Niblett takes her guitar head-to-head with a trio of talented Portland percussionists. Medeles—co-owner of the locally-renowned Revival Drum Shop and a member of The Breeders—uses his turns to circle Niblett like Ali, counterpunching with snapped-off jabs, flashing a master’s footwork and hammering through epic exchanges. Emil Amos and Dan Wilson spar with equal force, both leaning more toward the George Foreman model, with Amos adding brawny fills and Wilson striking his kit with pure power.
In between furious, marauding tracks like “Gun” and “All Night Long,” Niblett slips in devastating slow-burners, show-stopping ballads that demonstrate how fully she’s honed the harsh and grating edges from her delivery. Building around searching melodies and anxious strings, “Can’t Fool Me Know” and “My Man” strike and retreat with the instinctive balance of Sinead O’Conner’s The Lion And The Cobra, flashing anger without atonality and measuring strength by virtue of fragility. Though cast from Niblett’s typical primary elements, It’s Up To Emma sounds richer and fuller than past records, the lyrical directness adding one more driving force in a mix balanced out by taut strings, bone-shake tambourine and railcar blasts of EBow.
The English-born Niblett hasn’t completely shed her native cheek, however, unloading a straightforward cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” as an idiosyncratic stab at levity. The song choice also sounds a warning not to take the collection literally, reinforcing that Niblett’s performing a deeply rooted brand of music and not opening up her private journals. Still, “No Scrubs” is the one throwback moment on It’s Up To Emma, the instance where a non sequitur collides into the personal with an awkwardness that’s difficult to embrace.
That minor detour proves harmless, however, as Niblett closes It’s Up To Emma with a pair of torch epics that pick up where one of her most enduring songs, “The Kiss,” left off. As did that Will Oldham duet, both “Could This Possibly Be?” and “What Can I Do?” build off of down-tempo, Stone Gossard-meets-Percy Sledge guitar figures, the former exploding into teen-spirit “YEAH-YEAH’s and the latter cutting to the rawest blues howl, a cry of “Baby! Baby! Baby!” that Niblett makes entirely her own through sheer force of emotion. Wisely, throughout It’s Up To Emma Niblett realizes these combustible elements are more than enough.