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Jenny Scheinman: The Littlest Prisoner

Dan Bilawsky By

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It's tempting to say that Jenny Scheinman has a split musical personality, but that's not really the case. The playful-and-devious violinist with a glint in her eye and the poised alt-country singer aren't as far apart as some may think, as both are powered by the heartbeat of American life; it's just important to remember that American life isn't so simple to define. It's gritty and gorgeous all at once, and Scheinman understands that better than most. The Littlest Prisoner is one more piece of evidence supporting that case.

This album comes two years after Mischief & Mayhem (Self Produced, 2012), but it has virtually nothing in common with that release. Instead, this one can be seen as a logical follow-up to the album that immediately preceded that record—Jenny Scheinman (Koch, 2008). That one, which surveyed various styles of roots music, was the first to truly present Scheinman as a vocalist. There, she contributed originals and referenced everybody from Lucinda Williams to Tom Waits, delivering pure-toned music that had a natural, take-this-as-it-is production quality to it. Here, it's all originals, and the production plays a more important role, as a thin-and-reflective glaze seems to coat the music. Producer Tucker Martine does for Scheinman what Daniel Lanois did for Emmylou Harris: He adds depth, presence and atmosphere to music that calls for it.

Scheinman is joined by guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Brian Blade. Both men are on their best behavior, as they're here to serve the songs, not stir things up. Understated brilliance is at the core of their work, whether helping to shape an instant classic ("Brother"), driving a musical train ("Run Run Run"), or leaving space around Scheinman's voice. A few other players, like bassist Tony Garnier and guitarist Bruce Cockburn, drop in for a track or two, but this remains a trio-focused outing. Several short instrumental teases—the funky "Bent Nail," the slow-roaming "Debra's Waltz," and the bucolic "Thirteen Days"—call for further instrumental exploration from this line-up. But for now, those pieces will have to simply serve as well-placed garnish surrounding the affecting numbers that put Scheinman's charming voice on a pedestal.

Track Listing: Brother; Run Run Run; Thirteen Days; The Littlest Prisoner; My Old Man; Houston Debra's Waltz; Just A Child; Bent Nail; Sacrifice.

Personnel: Jenny Scheinman: vocals, violin, octave mandolin, octave violin; Bill Frisell: guitar, ukulele (8); Brian Blade: drums, vocals, vibraphone (8); Tony Garnier: bass (1, 6); Bruce Cockburn: guitar (4); Gary Craig: tambourine (4).

Title: The Littlest Prisoner | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Sony Masterworks

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