For the better part of a decade, English singer-songwriter Scout Niblett has been building a body of work immune to changes in musical trends. Her sound picks up where the distorted guitars, confessional lyrics, and minimalist rock gestures broadly termed “grunge” left off in the mid-’90s, and it doesn’t do a whole lot to evolve the formula. The result is stark and challenging music that recalls a stripped-down PJ Harvey. Steve Albini, who produced Harvey’s epoch defining Rid of Me, is Niblett’s long-standing studio collaborator.
The album’s title refers to a process whereby metals are heated to provoke a change in their composition, and it points to a further refining of Niblett’s already stark aesthetic. This is evident on songs like “Cherry Cheek Bomb,” a standout track that beats rudimentary guitar and drum parts to death over its six-minute-plus running time without losing momentum. Elsewhere, Niblett covers Swearing at Motorists‘ “Duke of Anxiety” to great effect, the self-loathing lyrics (“I’m a drunk/ Reasons I don’t need”) a perfect match for Niblett’s throaty vocals. However, one dirge like this after another becomes fatiguing over the album’s hour long running time. Album closer “Meet and Greet” drives this point home, a nine-minute rumination on the frustrations of touring built on a static drum and guitar part that only changes tack in its closing notes, a hardly satisfying eruption of banal guitar squall that ends with a whimper.
Calcination does not lack sincerity or focus, but that doesn’t make it any easier to digest. Like Niblett’s early collaborator and kindred spirit Jason Molina, she has crafted a world of sound entirely her own, but it is not one that you necessarily want to spend a long time in. Perhaps Niblett’s refusal to progress from a dated sound has prevented her from breaking through like female artists before her, such as Harvey and, more recently, Cat Power. This is Niblett’s first record for Drag City, and it signals a refusal to compromise her personal vision. Drag City is the world’s biggest cult label, nurturing the careers of idiosyncratic artists from Bill Callahan to Will Oldham while producing breakout stars like Joanna Newsom. The label should be a good home for Niblett’s single-minded excursions, and, who knows, maybe this material will catch on eventually. If the contemporary indie-rock landscape has further proven anything, it’s that everything old is new again, eventually.