Singer-songwriters willing to figuratively stand naked before the world do so at considerable risk. Allowing the occasional flaw to slip past quality control can infuse songs with just the right touch of humanity, but preserving every flaw may cause the average audience member to seek out CDs whose edges are airbrushed into oblivion. Which helps explain the career of Celine Dion.
While Dion is Canadian and Niblett, a native of Nottingham, England, records for a label called Secretly Canadian, the comparisons end there. On I Am, Niblett emerges as the anti-Celine -- a performer with a fragile, sometimes homely voice, a lyrical sensibility that's poetic without ever seeming precious, and a startling lack of vanity. The result is uneasy listening that will repel fans of slickness even as it rewards those who don't like their tunes to be coated with Teflon.
Producer Steve Albini has a well-earned reputation for studio simplicity, but he's never constructed a sound as spare as the one on display here. Several songs on the album, including the opener, "Miss In Love With Her Own Fate," feature just one instrument -- a drum kit flailed upon by Niblett or cohort Pete Schreiner in a manner calculated to make folks reconsider their harsh opinions of Meg White's stick skills. Elsewhere, "Fire Flies" is built upon a ukulele that sounds as if it hasn't been tuned since Don Ho said "Aloha" for the final time, and "Until Death" sports a guitar introduction that's indistinguishable from warming up. As for "No-Ones Wrong (Giricocola)," it's surprising mainly because it sounds like the performers, including guitarist Chris Saligoe, might have practiced it once or twice before the tape started rolling.
Still, the spontaneity and enthusiasm with which Niblett infuses her material renders questions of professionalism moot. "I'll Be a Prince (Shhh)" manages to move from tender reflections to full-on passion and back again in less than two minutes; "Boy" paints a bountiful portrait of desire in just nine words ("Boy, show me all the love that you know"); and "It's All for You" pays tribute to magicians, musicians, lovers and, for some reason, truckers, in a manner that will be embraced by amateur cheerleaders everywhere.
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I Am is as straightforward as its title. Unlike the rest of us, Niblett has nothing to hide. Compared with her, most centerfolds are fully clothed.