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You didn’t see Scout Niblett Friday night.
No, you just had to be ten feet away from David Berman. Or you couldn’t resist the shuffling electrodance beacon of Copy’s Keytar, echoing in 8-bit Nintendo-Entertainment-System-audio from the depths of Holocene. Maybe you unexpectedly spent six hours trying to explain the Yubiwa Hotel performance to your friends. Whatever your excuse, you weren’t alone. The Works was lightly attended; a victim of a Portland night with too much raw cultural stock and too little audience capital.
Which is fine, except that you didn’t see Scout Niblett on Friday night.
Watching Scout Niblett perform is like seeing a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis spun by a larval Bjork, had she been diagnosed as bipolar, quit KUKL, moved to Olympia, Washington, and listened to a lot of early PJ Harvey on her Walkman, high on Percodan, while tagging freeway overpasses with Kurt Cobain. It’s violent and tender, cosmically life-affirming and, well, a little unnerving. She emerges gleaming and brilliant, but for the charming awkwardness of a post-metamorphic awakening.
Solo for two-thirds of the performance, Niblett alternates between her sunburst Fender and a small drum kit, the kick hand-lettered in chalk with a schoolgirl-cursive “Scout Niblett.” She bangs on the drums like it’s the first time she’s ever sat behind them, giggly and ecstatic at the haptic pleasure of hitting things. “We’re all going to die,” she sweetly warbles. Then she sings a song about Linus Van Pelt from Peanuts.
Somehow, this never becomes cloying. She plays hard and loose, angry and saccharine, aloof, yet is boldly emotive and honest in her singing. She tumbles from her stripped-down, sing-song melodies to quiet, hauntingly-bluesy dirges (somewhat reminiscent of Cat Power), ending with distortion-laden, power-chord progressions over shredding screams and Nathaniel Price’s drumming. It’s loud. It’s fast. The guy standing next to you looks a little scared.
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With anyone else, this cuteness/creepiness duality could easily come out as pretentious, look-at-how-weird-I-am art-school one-upmanship. But there’s no spectacle with Niblett; she bares her talent simply and truthfully. The result evades your bullshit radar, plows through your fortified barrier of skepticism, and becomes truly, viscerally, and compassionately compelling.
Ryan Lucas