4 out of 5
Label: Secretly Canadian
Produced by: Andy Miller
As Scout Niblett’s early Secretly Canadian work had her on a splits with Songs: Ohia, and reviews were mentioning Cat Power, and the de facto sound of the disc – upon on a precursory spin – was solo acoustic guitar stuff… I’ll admit I didn’t give the album much time. Not that any of the above ingredients are bad, they’re just suggestive of a sound that’s not always for me, and I was already dividing most of Secretly Canadian’s output into either minimalist singer-songwriter stuff – Scout, Ohia – or the more herky-jerky indie stuff (Panoply, Racebannon) that’d initially led me to the imprint. So Niblett – Emma Louise, aka “Scout” – went into the former pile, and I didn’t check back in until her followup, I Am, which took its Steve Albini production credit (also not an instant plus or minus – Steve had also worked with Songs: Ohia, so there’s a natural bridge there) and used it to amp up the inherent discordance of her work: mashing a sing-songy nursery vibe with off-key singing and odd chord progressions and some breakout shouts here and there. Now this was for me, and I was a fan from thereon out. And yet, the dye had been cast on her debut: I figured it for folk beginnings, before she found her later sound.
And that’s… kind of true. Except it’s also sing-songy, and brutal, and hook-filled, and stuffed with odd chord progressions; it’s prototypical Scout, but it is all here.
The album seems delivered in phases: the opening half or so is its strongest, consisting of occasional percussion but mostly Scout and her guitar, slipping in and out of self-chiding and astrological references and the artist’s tendency toward the mysterious and surreal in her lyrics, all of this floating in and out and sung in Niblett’s raw and bare affect. It seems happy and sad at the same time; certain and puzzled about the same topics. It’s also incredibly hummable and catchy: Niblett has a knack for finding strange, off-tune-ish melodies that are nonetheless instantly memorable.
Then for a few songs, Emma does her childlike thing: simple strums, a marching beat, and one-or-two line chants. Every album has some tracks like this, and the sequencing here makes it seem like Secretly Canadian / Emma weren’t sure if they had a place on the disc, putting them together, then following them up with the album’s third section: very stripped down and somber acoustic tracks, as though to double-down and prove that Ms. Niblett is totes serious, y’all. And this flow does work, but it also underlines a certain uncertainty in the presentation – that Emma was maybe holding back in favor of appearing like one of those folky troubadours I thought she was. Which is perhaps why her next couple albums / EPs erred toward a harsher image, before settling into some brilliant later-career discs that felt like a more comfortable sound that blended it all together.
So: I’m not sure I could’ve / would’ve recognized the brilliance of this material had I given it proper time back in the day, but with the rest of her catalogue now in my brain, it’s undeniable: Sweet Heart Fever is, absolutely, Scout Niblett. Maybe with a bit of excess held back, but even with that, it cannot prevent her unique flair from shining through.