Last year's EP I Conjure Series (Secretly Canadian) gave the impression that British singer Scout Niblett was deliberately sabotaging her songs, trying to scuff up the offhand beauty she revealed on her stunning 2001 debut album, Sweet Heart Fever. Niblett's raspy vocals have invited comparisons to Cat Power's Chan Marshall; despite her sometimes wobbly intonation, she's really closer to PJ Harvey. On the EP her words came spilling out of her mouth in excited bursts that seemed driven by her naive drumming: when she flailed, her voice strained to match the arrhythmic cacophony; when the bashing slowed down, her voice softened. Some of the songs benefited from the scrappy, minimal arrangements, while others just seemed like attempts to refute the Cat Power comparisons. She delivers some more voice-and-drum numbers on her new album, I Am (recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini and again released by Secretly Canadian), but now she plays well enough to both sing and keep time. On the opener, "Miss Inlove With Her Own Fate," the beat is relatively steady, but the singing, which ranges from near-whispered cooing to soulful wailing, shines. Happily, Niblett sticks to guitar on most tracks, supported by Pete Schreiner (Panoply Academy) on drums and Chris Saligoe (Racebannon) on second guitar. While I don't think the Marshall and Harvey comparisons are finished, Niblett's getting much closer to forging her own identity, especially when she lets her glorious voice rip. Here and there she can still be too self-conscious--on "Fire Flies" she strums ukulele and sings "You're so sweet on the eye / You play your instrument so well" with the musicality of a two-year-old--but she's clearly evolving. Danny Black opens. Saturday, September 13, 9 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia; 773-227-4433.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roderick Trestrail.