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Jessica Bailiff - Jessica Bailiff

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Artist: Jessica Bailiff

Album: Jessica Bailiff

Label: Kranky

Review date: Jan. 5, 2003

Krankin' It Down...And Out.

Some music is meant to be listened to, not just heard. And while indie aesthetes and musicians alike take this statement to be a truism (so obvious that it becomes trite), it’s possible to forget that some albums really are hard to understand without playing an active role as listener. Jessica Bailiff’s eponymous album constitutes one of these records, although it’s hard to imagine anyone with ears not finding something to appreciate here. In fact, Bailiff’s album is rather easy to like because of its challenges, and a rewarding one at that.

In her latest full-length release (her third on Kranky), Bailiff combines folk acoustic guitar, droning guitars, and overarching vocals to create a lush, mysterious world reminiscent of a place between the songwriting of Nick Drake and the spirit of so-called sonic experimentalists like Kevin Shields and Sonic Boom. At the heart of Bailiff’s songs is an earnestness manifest in simple chord progressions, piano lines and poetic lyrics delivered with sincere emotion. Blanketing this base is a canopy of distorted elements – constantly lurking above like a winter cloud, a hissing percussive loop, an inverted or delayed guitar, and sometimes even a violin ukulele or sitar. Rather than competing for the spotlight and distracting the listener, this dichotomy often permits a certain kind of transcendence rarely allowed by modern rock music. The album’s third track, “The Hiding Place,” introduces this motif by means of an acoustic guitar and violin-turned-sitar pairing (the string presence inevitably reminiscent of Kranky labelmates Low) accompanied by a rapidly-panned anxious whisper that keeps the song’s soporific effect in check. The second half of the album represents an increased attention to this method, as the final four tracks come across as Bailiff’s most intense and sonically complex pieces. “Mary” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I can remember hearing in all of 2002. If there is a complaint to be registered, it would be that the more sparse and relaxed songs seem to discard instrumentation in favor of vocals alone, a move which sometimes paints a mystical new-age world (a place I usually choose to avoid). But really, it’s a fine line to walk, and Bailiff rarely falters.

Bailiff admits in interviews that she never really liked folk music, nor does she consider herself a space-rocker. This should come as no surprise, considering that her record really doesn’t fit under any of the extant genre headings. And this probably won’t change – I don’t think there will ever be a “narco-folk” movement in the mainstream. It’s hard to imagine an entire musical community of Jessica Bailiffs because what she accomplishes here would be far too difficult for less talented artists. But thankfully there are artists like Bailiff out there, ones willing to let us meet them halfway instead of trying to do all the legwork themselves.

By Jeff Rufo

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