Scout Niblett has always known how to make use of negative space, whether it’s inserting long, reverberating pauses between guitar eruptions or stringing out elliptical phrases like connect-the-dots puzzles. When she’s on, she’s white hot intense, a head back in a banshee howl, a fingers slashing a Bleach-purloined guitar riff. But when she’s off, she’s dead quiet, stock still, unembellished. She’s a serial multi-tasker, not a simultaneous one. When she plays guitar, sings and drums, she takes them by turn, never picking up the vocal line until the guitar distortion has faded, not crashing into the drums until her last “oh-oh-whoa” has trailed away.
So, on It’s Up to Emma, her sixth album, songs like “My Man” and “What Can I Do” are a bit of a shock – lusher, denser, subtler, their gut-punching intensity smoothed with sustained sounds. She sounds, on these tracks, a good bit like Sinead O’Connor, which is to say, wild and unpredictable but within a sleeker context. There are bits of cello, more intricate guitar parts, rapid-fire, martial drum beats tucked within these songs, so that they sound less like the ninth round of a middle-weight boxing match, more like unusually passionate pop.