When an artist has a very minimal style, she can take albums following her first release in only a few directions. She can expand upon her sound, adding extra instrumentation, as Mates of State has done with its most recent album, or she can make her "sound" more or less accessible. And then there is the rare case of the minimal artist who opts to further reduce her sonic palette, perhaps attempting an even purer distillation of her craft.
This, at least, seems to be Scout Niblett's approach. If somebody had told me her second album would subtract, rather than add, from the "sound content" of her songs, I would have been incredulous. Her debut, Sweet Heart Fever, was so lean that to strip any more meat off its body would seem to leave only bone.
And in some cases, the songs on I Am seem just that: bleached bones lacking even a skeletal structure. These are moments when Niblett's audacity exceeds her.
As foreshadowed on her I Conjure Series EP from earlier this year, several of the tracks here feature only Niblett's voice and drums. These are the worst songs on the album. The earnest, elegant lyrics of the opener "Miss in Love With Her Own Fate" are ruined by Niblett's incompetent cymbal smashing. And although a mere 38 seconds, "Texas" still manages to irritate with its combination of moronic lyrics and savage banging. In the case of "Fire Flies," the lyric "Fire flies/C'mon I wanna see you have sex/Fire flies/C'mon I don't wanna see you have sex," is simply too silly and stupid to forgive.
This is not to say that the album is all bad, but merely to say that the "experiment" rarely works. On more conventional guitar-drums-vocals songs like "No-Ones Wrong" and "Until Death," Niblett qua austere folk chanteuse reappears for a few minutes. The former is something of an emotional holocaust, in which she yells with all the intensity of a PJ Harvey or a Courtney Love (although, for the record, I'm fond of neither). The grim dissonance of the latter is a fine counterpoint to songs from her first album like "Miss My Lion," evoking restless angst rather than longing.
Make no mistake: I Am is inferior to the uniformly excellent Sweet Heart Fever. About the only uniform aspect of this album is the monomaniacal lyrics, which concern only Niblett's San Diego drummer boy, their love, and her consequent love of America. There is nothing inherently wrong with the subject, except for its constant reiteration, in various forms, across the entire album. If it were pared to EP-length, it would make for a great 15 minutes. In its current state, it scarcely sounds like music and more often like sonic masturbation.