SCOUT NIBLETT with PICASTRO and FIVE BLANK PAGES at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Monday (August 1). $8.50. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Scout Niblett doesn't know who she is any more. This shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with the Nottingham-bred art-rocker's penchant for messing with her own image on- and offstage.
The creepy caterwauler, who was born with the Lemony Snicket-worthy name of Emma Niblett, has a tendency to fuck with people's perceptions by wearing wacky wigs or fluorescent orange workers' overalls when she plays before a crowd and eschewing glammy head shots for weird photos in which she distorts her face by stuffing her mouth with bread.
But while those strategies can be seen as the residue of a stint studying performance art in college, Niblett's current identity crisis is somewhat more profound. It's the reason she called her latest album, which dropped a few months ago on the Too Pure label, Kidnapped By Neptune.
"I've been an astrologer for about 12 years," she explains from a tour stop in Oakland, California. "I'm obsessed with figuring out what's going on in the stars, and Neptune's been the biggest influence on me over the past few years."
Apparently, if you're down with all this cosmology business, Neptune's role is to swoop in and sweep your personality away like a janitor with OCD - hence the "Kidnapped" in Kidnapped By Neptune. Pretty intense.
"Oh, but it's not negative, cuz if you have a fixed view of your personality Neptune's job is to dissolve those things that are crystallized in you. Your idea of self just crumbles around you, and after the fact you can understand and accept much more that happens in life."
She pauses shyly.
"I'm sure people don't understand what the hell I mean when I use planetary language in my lyrics."
Niblett makes visceral, melancholic music that matches jagged post-grunge guitar noise with primal drumbeats and a vocal delivery that evokes both unholy Appalachian blues and post-punk femmes like the Raincoats, with impressionistic lyrics that have the surreal logic of dreams.
People often draw a parallel between Niblett and Cat Power, which made sense in the context of the broken folky singer/songwriter vibe of Niblett's earlier discs. The comparison will probably come up even more frequently now that Niblett is signed to Too Pure, part of the Beggars Group that includes Cat Power's label Matador.
With Kidnapped For Neptune, though, she owes far more of a debt to the grimy, cranked-up angst anthems of Nirvana, structuring songs around pummelling percussion, stoned electric guitar wails and loads of distortion. Even her guttural moans have that bubbling-up-from-the-pit-of- your- stomach Cobain thing going on.
Though Niblett's shows are notorious for being heavier rawk affairs, she hasn't been able to fully embrace her grungier side on record till now. That's due in part to the help of legendary recording engineer Steve Albini, the man behind Nirvana's In Utero and a slew of other seminal albums from the early 90s.
You can hear his influence in the way he captures Niblett's voice echoing off the walls of the studio on tape, and through his trademark positioning of raw drums in the centre of the mix.
Niblett claims it was Albini's organic approach ("We tried to make the recording more like a live show and less like a worked-on piece of music") rather than his resumé that enticed her, but her list of favourite recordings from favourite bands (Nirvana, the Breeders, Shellac) leans heavily on the Albini-engineered side of things.
More intriguingly, though she eagerly pinpoints Nirvana's dirgey riffs as the reason she picked up a guitar and started forming bands in the first place, her inspiration for getting behind a kit is a bit more obscure.
"Um, I don't really have a role model in terms of drumming," she begins. "The reason I started playing drums is cuz I used to do this open-mic night in Nottingham, and there was an old Caribbean guy who used to get up and play calypso songs on guitar. But if there was another act with a drum kit, he'd get behind the kit and start hammering away and singing Beatles covers over top. That's what inspired me.
"Technically, he wasn't the best, but it seemed very wonderful aesthetically."