Scout Gillett Fends Off Ghosts of Past and Present on no roof no floor

Music Reviews Scout Gillett
Scout Gillett Fends Off Ghosts of Past and Present on no roof no floor

In the heat of a situation as frenzied as a high-stakes record store dig, people will say things that stick with you. A few years ago, at a store I visit regularly, I mentioned to someone behind the counter that I wanted to buy a copy of Wire’s 1978 sophomore album, Chairs Missing. A man perusing the table nearby snapped his head up to look at us. I couldn’t remember his face now if I tried, but he gestured towards me. “You’ve heard that one before, yeah?” he asked. I nodded, preparing myself for the impromptu game of 20 Questions that some older guys in places like this still play with people who don’t look like them. Instead of throwing an onslaught of trivia my direction, he just nodded and looked away, sighing like just the thought of Colin Newman’s cryptic, almost alien lyrics shook him to his core. With the conviction that he was sharing the most obvious truth ever spoken, he said, “That album is a haunted house” (not “sounds like,” just “is”), and turned his attention back to the crates. End of conversation.

That man and his ominous eight-syllable album review planted themselves firmly in my mind as I listened to no roof, no floor, the full-length debut from Missouri-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Scout Gillett. It’s impossible to compare the albums themselves, because every element of Gillett’s work that haunts the listener is diametrically opposed to every element with a similar effect on the Wire record. Chairs Missing holds its breath, offering one minimal, mysterious vignette after the next as biting guitars and synths pull the scenery taut; even at its most accessible, you sense its walls closing in on you, refusing room for oxygen to flow. In contrast, Gillett aims to create so much open space, you could drown in it. Her Americana-tinged brand of indie folk matches the expanse of the empty prairie ahead of her, leaving no walls to even imagine yourself clawing at. It occurred to me that the haunted house Gillett built wasn’t haunted at all, but completely abandoned. In a way, that’s even more terrifying.

The story of no roof, no floor starts at the dawn of the pandemic, when Gillett traveled from her adopted home of New York back to her hometown to recenter herself. Upon arrival, she found she no longer recognized the place she’d left behind in 2017, feeling, in her own words, “homesick for a home that no longer seemed to exist” as she watched friends and family struggle with addiction and hardship brought on by lockdown.

As such, her writing clearly reflects an effort to both assuage and surrender, bandaging wounds as she realizes only she can help herself. When it came time to record the material, she and co-producer Nick Kinsey relocated to a barn in Upstate New York with her band, capturing each vocal take “in the pitch black darkness of night, void of light pollution.” It turns out I wasn’t far off in picturing Gillett singing each track in a hollowed-out house of her own creation, letting the vitality of the sound rattle the bones of the rotting structure around her.

The album provides the first major taste of Gillett’s songwriting following the release of her one to ten EP, featuring four covers and one original song, earlier this year. It garnered comparisons to Gillett’s friend Sharon Van Etten (who gets a shoutout in the album’s liner notes) and Angel Olsen—the latter of whom, coincidentally, also shared a meditative album with country-inspired touches about multiple life-changing events colliding earlier this year. On paper, the parallels make sense, in part because Gillett and Olsen share a similarly emotive vocal quality that allows them to delicately flutter from word to word one second and swallow a room of any depth with their cry the next. However, where Olsen’s Big Time works in broad, cinematic strokes, not shying from grandeur when the scene calls for it, no roof, no floor works in wounded restraint, opting to remain spare as it alternates between menacing and pulsing with life.

Above all, Gillett knows how to maintain a specific sense of atmosphere even as her delivery varies. Lead single “signal” is the most accessible, compact statement she offers, letting effect-laden bass and guitar drive rhythmically alongside searching lyrics (“Moving in reverse / Until it seems rehearsed / You want it like it is / But never what it was”) before grinding to a halt and evaporating into buzzing feedback once the freight train loses steam. “slow dancin’” frets at a similar speed, letting the organic twang of steel guitars weave themselves into barely there synth lines. “Why am I so scared?” she demands over the insistent pulse behind her, “I’ve already been there.” These singles, alongside the abrasive electronic crunch of “444 marcy ave,” never perfectly mesh—and that feels intentional, like they masquerade as playlist-friendly indie-pop hits but never let their unsettling core fully slide into place, creating friction to spark fire.

Gillett also understands that fire needs room to feed once you start it. As such, she savors the space and time she can control, crafting songs with fewer moving pieces—and therefore, more opportunity to adventure. The title track lets itself sway with the push of the pedal steel and whispered melodies wavering over the ambient sound from outside the barn. “Loving should be this easy / If we just would believe it,” she repeats like a mantra before the song comes to a stop, like all time is suspended with the sound, trapped in amber. Gillett is trapped with it, slowing to force herself through whatever substance in which her voice is stuck: “Once we hit the water / Nothing else matters.”

The album’s second side is heavy on considered moments like these; “strangers in silence” lets a brief glimpse of sunshine in with bright, high streaks of light painted by banjo plucks and string lines that sound like someone is effortlessly shrugging them off. “Oh, now that I’m free / I finally have room to see / Your love / Your love was blinding me,” she sings, stretching out the second “love” at the top of her voice, like a declaration of war. She weaponizes the word again on “western eyes,” gliding over a gentle sweep of guitars drenched in reverb and subtle percussion until she pushes to ask, “My man, what will we do for love?” before the instrumentation comes back full force, serving as emphatic punctuation.

Though the light is welcome, the album’s two strongest moments come when the expansive slow-burn of the shadow returns. Record centerpiece “hush, stay quiet” lets whining guitar notes surround Gillett before the swampy thump of a drum cuts through the dead air like a weight falling from the rafters and a wailing saxophone delivers its final eulogy. Meanwhile, “crooked” serves as its sister song, built around percussion mimicking the sound of blood pumping in your ears. “Can you forget to feel? Does it always creep? / If you forget to breathe, will it choke you out?” Gillett howls at the song’s climax, letting her voice act as a siren to shake the house’s foundation as the guiding heartbeat quickens.

These sparse, moody meditations building to dramatic eruptions sketch out a promising future for Gillett as a singular artist, who lets a cry of simultaneous pain and joy loose in a way that feels original to her—regardless of easy comparisons she’s been shouldering since the beginning. At its highest peaks, it’s difficult to remember that a full-length effort as varied and confident as this one is a debut. In that sense, no roof, no floor serves as a summation of Gillett’s artistic journey thus far, cramming lifetimes of experiences both musical and personal into a house that isn’t as abandoned as it initially appears.

In fact, given the way she fills every corner of the dead structure in which her songs glow, she can deem the titular floor unnecessary. If there are ghosts haunting those stories, Gillett exorcises them here, letting her feet leave ground to make space for whatever direction she decides to turn going forward. The titular roof just has to be ready to be blown off when she makes her next move.

Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.

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