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January 28, 2003

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Scout Niblett

I Conjure Series

Secretly Canadian

My disgust with the explosion of female singer-songwriters in the mid/late 90's, as heralded by the Lilith Fair, has never really waned. As far in the past as Jewel's screeching mew and a handful of other forgettable anti-talents like Shawn Colvin and Sarah McLaughlan are, that blip in music history taught me an indelible lesson--always beware of a singer with only a guitar or piano as accompaniment; being sonically "naked" like this gives the pretense of sincerity but often stinks of sentimentality.

I'm happy to report that although Scout Niblett falls into the category mentioned above, there is nothing of that pretension to her songs. When I first heard "There's So Much Love to Do," the opening track off of her debut album Sweet Heart Fever, I was immediately enchanted by her voice, a syrupy mixture of girlish coyness and sultry seductiveness. Niblett also used her solitude to her advantage, creating sparse songs with only her guitar and voice that were far more emotionally resonant than the hyper-produced schlock of Lilith.

Now, with the release of the I Conjure Series EP, Niblett has returned to heavy rotation in my discman--and this time around she plays the drums. They make an immediate entrance on the first track, "Gymnastic (fall over)," more of a brief explosion than a true song. Like many of the other songs, the only sonic elements at play are Niblett's versatile voice and crashing drums, played with the joyous vigor of a devoted amateur. Her lyrics this time around are even more leftfield than on Sweet Heart Fever--twice they're Japanese, once they're merely "la la la's," and one song is written to Linus (of Peanuts)--but despite their abstraction, her earnestness and vitality shine through. Overall, this tiny EP, containing only 11 musical minutes, is probably too slim for any but the most fanatical record collectors to purchase, but by taking her minimalist approach in a new, more rocking direction, Scout Niblett has ensured my ongoing fascination with her. Her upcoming album, recorded by Steve Albini, promises to impress even more.

--Yoshi Salaverry

Arbo

Whirlington Sessions

Ever since the Smashing Pumpkins, Chicago has been hurting for a decent mainstream band. We've had to settle for a steady procession of one-hit wonders--from Caviar right on through to OK Go. It pretty much says it all that Chicago's most renowned band at the moment is the agro-metal outfit Disturbed. True, the local scene has spawned a number of impressive indie talents of late, including the Detachment Kit and Plush, but as far as radio-friendly fare is concerned, Chicago might as well be dead.

Arbo is a young rock group, but they've quickly made the rounds on the local circuit and, in the process, have proved that the city is not without a glimmer of hope. Following a slight three-song demo, the Whirlington Sessions is their first proper EP and it boasts surprisingly strong songwriting for such a new band. Guitarist Tom Wilbeck, who completed most of these songs while still a student at Arizona State, shows a talent well beyond his years, as their musical direction veers from straight-ahead rockers like "Let's Go Again" to the more emo-tinged terrain of "If It's Too Late" and "Coming Along." Unfortunately, the EP's variety is also its most obvious shortcoming--Arbo's most pressing problem at this stage seems to be one of identity. It's difficult to tell whether the band is angling to sound like the Vines or Hoobastank and, apparently, they can't be bothered to make a distinction. I hear strains of brit-pop running through the songs, but the band is either unable or unwilling to bring those elements to the forefront. All told, Whirlington Sessions is a promising EP, but it's impossible to tell when or if Arbo will follow through.

--Jon Garrett

Common

Electric Circus

MCA Records

This is exactly what hip-hop doesn't need now. Common's new album, Electric Circus, sounds like Cannibal Ox and Outkast's stillborn child--equal parts misguided attempts at electronic experimentation and second-rate funk revivalism. Whereas The Cold Vein evoked a galaxy of crumbling skyscrapers, metallic pigeons, and one-fanged cats (both lyrically and musically), Electric Circus never shakes off the listener's sneaking suspicion that Common was out of his league. Whereas Aquemini seamlessly blended old-school funk stylings with contemporary hip-hop, Common's frequent references to funk seem contrived and incongruous. In other words, the production is unexpectedly the worst aspect, considering the fact that it was mainly produced by ?uestlove of the Roots.

Despite my hometown bias (Common has South Side cred), it needs to be said: Common is now a SELLOUT, and you can quote me on that. No matter how many collaborations with Stereolab singers he engineers, Common can never regain this listener's faith after sliding a shoddy album and a Coke ad under his belt.

--YS