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Looking for treble

O'Connor, Williams and Niblett's tales of paradise, love, driving and heartache

O'Connor Day
She calls it "sultry Americana." Shannon O'Connor's music certainly has an old-fashioned tilt, an idea that's held her in thrall for many years, though she's a relative latecomer to making music. O'Connor didn't pick up the guitar until she was 20, riding across the country on a bus with a bunch of environmentalists.

"It sounds more hippie than it actually was," she says. "You make these commitments before you get on the bus, and ours, unlike Ken Kesey's, were no sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll. No walkmen, no cigarettes."

The only thing to do on the long drives, according to O'Connor, was pick up some of the instruments that were on the bus and play. They had the Pete Seeger songbook Rise Up Singing, and O'Connor got hooked.

"It didn't take long to pick up a guitar. I'd had a lesson in 7th grade. I'd loved it then, and I couldn't understand why I didn't pick it up sooner," she says. "I just sort of let it in my life very organically and it became a huge part of my life."

Her rustic country-folk bounce aches for a different time, something that O'Connor had become drawn to. It winds throughout her new release Low in Paradise.

"I'm very nostalgic for the past. I am excited for the future, but there was a while there in my idealistic 20s I felt strongly about the world's need for change. I think I limited myself then--I went to chopping wood and carrying water in Saxapahaw, had my baby on my bedroom floor. I really thought I was making a difference, but I look back now and think I was just making it hard," she says.

O'Connor, who works at the Carolina Friends School when she's not working at Time After Time (a vintage store, natch), is excited about her show this weekend at the Latta House, which played an important educational role in the area.

"I love historic preservation and education," she says. "It just feels it will be one of those magical places, like All People's Grill, which I'd heard about and sort of knew what it was going to be like, but you really have to go to experience it."

Shannon O'Connor plays the Latta House Music Series in Raleigh with Abe Reid & the SpikeDrivers Saturday, Aug. 6 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $5; call 821-4061 for more info. O'Connor opens for Jule Brown at Fuse in Chapel Hill on Friday, Aug. 5.--Chris Parker

Badge of courage
"So, it's like you're writing letters to yourself?"

"Yeah, that's it."

Scout Niblett is on the road, somewhere outside of Omaha, Neb., making her way to the third stop on her first American tour behind Kidnapped by Neptune, her fourth and most adventurous record yet. She's struggling to describe how she writes songs, trying to illustrate what the words mean to her as they happen.

"The songs inform me, they're things I need to know more than anything. After I listen to them, then I know what I'm supposed to know."

But this struggle is charming. Niblett--who grew up in Staffordshire, England before moving to arts school in Nottingham at 19--speaks like a naïf, pausing between words, doubly between sentences, explaining away her philosophies and experiences in a drawled British accent, giggling every several 30 seconds.

The thing about this charm, though, is its sheer contrast with the tone of her music. Niblett's music--for all its transcendent power and evocative awareness--isn't charming, cute or comfortable. It's abrasive, impassioned, belligerent, challenging.

"I am the driver! I am the driver!" she screams over a crashing drumbeat at the drop of "Valvoline." Eventually, the song falls into softer territory, Niblett almost crooning to an ex-lover. But it gathers speed again. Most of Niblett's arrangements follow these random circuit paths--loud, fast, soft, careful, vindictive, pained--harnessing an inevitable sense of uneasiness, even at the music's most delicate passes.

But today, in the van, she elucidates it casually: "It's just about being heartbroken and deciding to drive away from that place where your heart hurts. The Valvoline is just something I'm using to get away as far as possible."

What's more, she comes across like most other 20-somethings, attesting that it's easy to write about being alone or disappointed by a lover.

"Oh, it happens quite a lot to me," she laughs.

As common as Niblett's troubles may be, what she does with them is refreshingly unique. Since 2002's I Am, Niblett has gone drum-centric, forming micro-melodies around her thundering, untrained, pedantic drumming, most often using guitars or keyboards as mere peripherals in a rhythmic brood. Where present, her riffs harness an unironic homage to grunge. The lyrics hinge on her astrology studies, and, like her arrangements, the images, anecdotes and proclamations come shrouded in the unexpected and mysterious.

Kidnapped by Neptune is a wake-up call, a slap in the face--and not just for women or the lonely, but for anyone that's ever decided that rock 'n' roll is an artform already evolved into extinction.

Scout Niblett performs with Alina Simone and Dixie Dirt at Local 506 on Monday, Aug. 8. Tickets are $8, and the show starts at 9:30 p.m.--Grayson Currin

Price to pay
"What seems clear is that Williams has chosen a long, slow ride to musical greatness," said (then-) Mercury Records label head Danny Goldberg in 1998. He'd just purchased the long-awaited Car Wheels on a Gravel Road from American for $450,000, ending a five-year odyssey that took Lucinda Williams through three labels and the departure of longtime collaborator Gurf Morlix. It won a Grammy and catapulted Williams into the charts, finally bridging the gap between Williams' critical popularity and commercial success.

Williams' roots music is notable for the care that goes into the recordings (she's been described as a control freak, though it's hard to argue with the results), as well as the rich detail of her musical portraiture. Her father was a literature professor, and her home, by her account, was full of music, from Ray Charles to Hank Williams. Indeed, part of her early career trouble was due to the difficulty labels had figuring out how to market her extremely personal blend of country, blues, folk and rock.

Williams recorded her first few albums for Smithsonian Folkways in 1979 and 1980, when she was in her mid-20s, but despite glowing reviews, suffered setback after setback dealing with labels, resulting in only two more releases in the next 18 years.

Of course, this is all ancient history. Williams has by now established herself as a visionary artist whose songs are full of such raw passion and pain that there ought to be a sticker-on-the-cover warning for the emotionally vulnerable. That's doubly true of her last studio album, World Without Tears, whose tales of red-hot love inevitably culminate in house fires and third-degree burns. More rock-driven than anything prior, Williams continues to explore and push her muse into new territory, ultimately justifying the "female Dylan" genuflections from her early career.

Lucinda Williams plays the Bryan Theater with Rob Jungklas at the N.C. Musuem of Art on Wednesday, Aug. 10. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $18.--Chris Parker

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