Burn notice

Pub date February 3, 2010
SectionSonic Reducer

SONIC REDUCER Eat your veggies. Don’t play in traffic. Follow your intuition, a.k.a. your muse. Judge a superstar by her voice not her frump factor. And watch for low-flying planets.

Words to heed, if not live by, since we seem to be reading the well-worn wrinkles and begging for guidance from musical wise women — pillars amid the sky-shattering winter storms, as health-care reform gets severely shaken and everyone ducks those flying shards of survival anxiety. We look to Patti Smith at Herbst, holding forth with gravity, grace, and acceptance, or even Susan Boyle, warbling like a songbird, stylist or no. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to cop a healing, soothing teacup of a chat with Scout Niblett, née Emma Louise, avid practitioner of astrology and maker of the beautifully raw new The Calcination of Scout Niblett (Drag City).

The U.K. native and onetime East Bay resident passes through town briefly for a Noise Pop show on Feb. 25 at Cafe Du Nord, and she has an astrology-informed perspective on the losses that marked the far-from-awesome recession of ’09-10 and the recent, seemingly endless processional of celebrity deaths: Saturn is squaring Pluto, an alignment that has particularly touched the Libra singer-songwriter, as well as unsuspecting others.

“I think people in general are still being affected by the tension in the sky,” says Niblett from her home in Portland, Ore. “We’re all going through it, but some of us are nailed on the head.” The effect for her: “It feels like I’m grieving for a life that I used to have or the person I used to be.”

As a result, Niblett dreamed up a series of songs like the corrosive “Strip Me Pluto,” a tune that, she explains, “is really to do with letting go of things, especially things that you think make up yourself and are completely attached to and identify with. In a sense that attachment causes you suffering, really. Learning to let go of things is your ticket to feeling better.”

“Don’t be scared, my child / It’s so clear tonight … I’m scared I’m not doing me right,” she wails on one shaved-raw track, “Ripe With Life,” under the recording ministrations of Shellac’s Steve Albini, as a stark, shark-like electric guitar twists and moans beneath a hollowed-out voice that recalls Cat Power, PJ Harvey, and the bluesmen — like John Lee Hooker — that Niblett loves. Much like the cover shot of Niblett waving and not drowning but bearing a menacing-looking blowtorch, the song comforts and unsettles, looks straight into the eye of fear. It’s a charm for troubled times.

For Niblett, the stars demanded more introspection on her fifth full-length. “I’ve noticed before that all the albums seemed to have these relationship-oriented songs, kind of celebrating my life through other people. This one wasn’t about that, but it was about me looking at myself, not with rose-colored glasses, but realistically and seeing things in my life that are dysfunctional.”

The cosmos also called for music in which “you can hear every single thing that’s happening,” and sounds that have been run through, as one track title puts it, an “IBD,” or Inner Bullshit Detector. Niblett will be testing at least one song further soon. In addition to giving a free chart reading as part of a forthcoming Drag City contest, she plans to offer 100 different versions of Calcination‘s title track on the label site, each numbered and available for download only once.

“My idea is to see how much the song will change after playing it that many times, kind of as an experiment for myself,” Niblett says. Unfortunately she’s only recorded 20 so far. “I kind of didn’t realize what I got myself into,” she exclaims. “Now I’ve started recording, and I’m like, ‘Omigod, what was I thinking?'”


Feb. 25, 8 p.m., $12–$14

Cafe Du Nord

2170 Market, SF





This Matador electro-rock combo coagulated from the Blood Brothers’ remains. Wed/3, 9:30 p.m., $5. Cafe Du Nord, 2174 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com


Bring out your beaniest for the second annual heavy metal chili cook-off and get serenaded by Hot Fog and ezeetiger. Sun/7, 1 p.m., free. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Gillian Welch’s steady hand cranks out immaculately recorded, tender country rock in a ’70s-era backwoods-moderne flavor. Tues/9, 8 p.m., $25. Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. www.livenation.com