Witchy blues shaman. Dylan Long

She was raised in England, but Scout Niblett's spare, heavy songs have a deep and dark American bloodline. First, there's her stage name, taken in honor of To Kill a Mocking-

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bird. Then there's the satanic, sylvan spookiness of her songs that could be the score to a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story.

But her musical genealogy really begins in Mississippi, with early Muddy Waters and his lilting, playful dance between voice and guitar. There weren't many notes in those old songs, but each one meant something. You can hear it in the opening seconds of "Rollin' Stone," with its simple plunk and hammer-pull, then Muddy moaning: "Well I wish/I was a catfish..." (Muddy went on to sire a whole line of Chicago blues with horns and harmonicas, but that's a different family tree.)

Niblett has more contemporary cousins in producer Steve Albini (the noise, the stop-and-start time signatures of his band Shellac, the centrality of drums in the mix) and Kurt Cobain (the way her songs spring from sad, soft chords to terrifying roars echoes Nirvana's "Lithium"). Her music has been called "art rock," but Scout Niblett is just playing the blues.

And her blues are vicious, raw with yearning. Even when she's quiet, she sometimes sings like she's got a ball of inky acid in her gut that she wants to projectile-vomit across the sky. (Another thing she has in common with Kurt Cobain.)

The childlike bareness of her songs and her kid-playing-dress-up stage presence add to the eeriness. Until recently, Niblett preferred to perform in a large blond wig, sometimes wearing a highway-construction getup: orange vest and pants with bands of white reflective tape. "It's kind of like a shamanic thing, kind of like power dressing," she told a Knoxville newspaper. And she likes shamanic props. In the album art for her latest record, The Calcination of Scout Niblett, she's holding a welding torch, her sweet smile lit by an eruption of flame bigger than her head.

"Calcination" means change. The dictionary definition: "to heat (as inorganic materials) to a high temperature but without fusing in order to drive off volatile matter or to effect changes (as oxidation or pulverization)." Calcination has industrial applications—making cement, devitrifying glass—and was big in alchemy circles as one of the 12 vital processes required to transform one thing into another. According to Cyclopaedia: Or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published in London in 1728, "philosophical calcination" was the process of hanging hooves, horns, and other hard organic matter over boiling water until it lost its gluey mucilage and could be beaten into powder.

But The Calcination of Scout Niblett isn't a departure from her earlier work. It's just as dark and minimalist, her guitar and her drums and her voice singing witchy incantations: "Danger danger/Danger danger/Danger danger/Danger danger" softly crooned to four little guitar chords (you can hear her fingers scraping on the metal strings as they move), then the same chords repeated in a loud, fuzzed-out break with whomping cymbals and drums. (That's the Albini affinity.)

Or these lines, sung to a simple drumbeat, without guitar:

Lucy, Lucy, Lu, Lucy, Luci-fer

Lucy, Lucy, Lu, Lucy, Luci-fer

With your castanets clicking in my ears

As the sun it sets over London furnaces

Lucy, Lucy, Lu, Lucy, Luci-fer

Lucy, Lucy, Lu, Lucy, Luci-fer

People get you wrong, people get you so wrong

You are real good, you're a real good one

Or these sad lines to more soft, solo guitar (here's the Muddy Waters): "Why would you think that you make me drink/I'm a drunk, reasons I don't need—just like you/And I'd be in my car if I weren't in this bar/Taking pills, take my keys. I might drive me to Mexico."

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Critics have also compared Niblett to PJ Harvey, but the two seem more like mirror images of each other. Harvey sings from experience, a woman in the world. Niblett sounds more like a child (maybe a brooding, Victorian child, but a child nonetheless) playing with the idea of feelings instead of having them. She is, as a friend once described her, "a little literary and a little cold."

But that doesn't mean Scout Niblett isn't moving—harrowing, even. And it doesn't mean she's not playing the blues. recommended