Feels Like Home
here's an almost inaudible chugging, only perceptible on good headphones, underneath the piano intro to "What's Inside Your Mind," the first track on Toledo songwriter Jessica Bailiff's fourth album. It sounds like a train—a real train, not the trains they fob us off with nowadays; the kind of train upon which a child kidnapper might be found murdered and all his fellow passengers with a motive—and even when the song changes its mind and stops the piano short in favor of a cyclical acoustic guitar the train lingers. Indeed, even though Bailiff never repeats this particular production trick, the train runs through all the best parts of Feels Like Home, which elevate what might be standard-issue hushed singer-songwriter material into a kind of exoticised Americana.
Bailiff was mentored by Low's Alan Sparhawk, and her material remains as gentle and sonically meticulous as you'd expect from her pedigree. Self-harmonies abound—particularly on "Lakeside Blues," on which two Bailiffs enunciate their consonants like a pair of Elliott Smiths; and "Persuasion," a winding two-minute oddity which despite being filled with lyrics comes across as an instrumental. But Bailiff is best at her simplest, as on "We Were Once," at four and a half minutes the album's longest song and one of its best, revolving around a hypnotic rise-and-fall vocal line that details all the things we once were—king and queen, hand in hand—before drifting into the acoustic stratosphere with a summation: "We were once / Everything." Bailiff's production, unassuming but careful, transforms the tired singer-songwriter inevitability of audible fret-scratching into a soft crunching that acts as percussion in the absence of anything conventional, and the snowdrifts and lakes that pervade the lyrics prepare the listener for the rest of the album, which is all about fog, rowboats, and nervous love—a series of suburban romances whose subjects are often not so much the guy as the quiet unfamiliarity of the Great Lakes at night.
All this comes to a head on "Evidence," an immediately arresting song that lays its first-time lyrics—"Helpless in your car / How far will we go," etc.—atop shimmering harmonies that give way, surprisingly, to the messiest, rockiest thirty seconds on the album, as the song is carried away by a sudden wind of dirty feedback. It's the best example of Bailiff's wedding of production to theme, as the fog and uncertainty of the first part are swept aside by the unintelligible passion of the second, and the album doesn't top it—save perhaps on "With You," the unadorned love-song closer that makes repetitive, almost childish simplicity into poetry. "I would like to be somewhere with you" isn't likely to impress anybody on the page, but it drifts to the ear in an angelic whisper that does a lot to sell it, and when Bailiff earnestly stresses that "It could be anywhere," it's hard not to be smitten.
It's not that Feels Like Home doesn't have its missteps—"Pressing," the only song on the album besides "We Were Once" to break three minutes, let alone four, is a bad choice—but enough of it is like "Evidence" and "With You" to make it worthwhile: simple, romantic, gently sincere, and cushioned by Bailiff's expert production, which contains few fireworks but rarely puts a foot wrong. In the end the album doesn't quite feel like home, but like a place a little ways off from home, far enough to be an adventure but close enough to allow you to be back in bed soon. Such are the advantages of rail travel.