Jenny Scheinman has a background that suggests, accurately, you might not be able to pin her down. She grew up in tiny community of Petrolia on the California coast, the child of New York ex-pats who were drawn to a community of artists and rural bohemians. Since she came to Brooklyn in 1999, she joined the troupe of jazz players and improvisors who might be roughly associated with Bill Frisell and also more avant grade players. But she has also played with Norah Jones and Sean Lennon, jazz pianist Jason Moran and the late drummer Paul Motian.
One of her real interests, atop all that, turns out to be songwriting and singing. Recently she has been exploring this side of her musical self in real focus, and 2008’s eponymous release on Koch featured only her vocal songs — material that came off more as “old-timey” than jazz, more as simple than tricky. The Littlest Prisoner is the follow-up to Jenny Scheinman, a fairly austere and moody set of songs that explore people, families, story.
This music has one thing strongly going for it: what a band. Scheinman originally intended to cut these songs as straighter Americana-country recording, in the mode (she has said) of Buddy Miller. That sounds cool, but what has come out features the trio of Frisell on guitar, Brian Blade on drums, and Sheinman’s fiddle. The sound is super-spare, no doubt, but because we’re talking about two master colorists in Frisell and Blade, some of the complexity of Sheinman’s jazz work gets to ride into her folks songs. It’s sneaky stuff.
The title track sets up as a fairly grooving pop song, with a nice backbeat and a pair of alternating chords that are more lush that on some other songs. The chorus adds a chiming sound of some kind, and the songs insists on itself nicely: a song about being a kid in a complicated family. When Sheinman breaks out some real folk fiddling after the second chorus, it all takes off even more, with Blade kicking up a nice storm. The song is almost uplifting from there on out, describing a name as “a ray of sunshine”, but one that only suggested the possibly of escape without actually being escape.
A more typical song is “Sacrifice”, which is slow and moody. “I never wrote you a love song,” Sheinman sings. “Those all went to other guys / Now my heart is filled with spite / I gave you a quarter of my life.” You get the idea. These are love songs, mostly, but not the easy kind. And Frisell essentially acts as one of the song’s characters, filling in little sounds and licks that seems to inhabit the emotion of the lyrics.
If all this sounds promising, well, it surely it. And I think that the songwriting and the instrumental playing here is superb. But — and there is simply no escaping this topic, given how spare the instrumental accompaniment is here — Sheinman’s voice may not be one that really carries an entire album of folk songs. It is a slightly nervous-sounding voice, with lots of little edges to it as she pronounces various vowel sounds or creates certain sonorities. To be qualitative about it: this is not a lush voice, a rich voice, a “pretty” voice. It has “character” of a sort, but it is both fairly flat (limited in range, plainspoken, not dynamic) and slightly tart or sour. On a tune like “Houston”, which is a solid melody that rides on an attractive chord sequence (which is to day, a “good” song in conventional terms) Sheinman is about good as she can be as a singer, but it’s still a relief when the harmony vocal comes on the chorus and creates a more rich sound. The singing here, it’s just merely okay.
But maybe that’s good enough if you love these songs and this band — both total possibilities. Listen closely. The stories are moving. “Just a Child” is charming, a song about a “past that’s disappearing as we sing”, a set of images are vivid like a painting, tableaus of rednecks and hippies, “waterfalls [that] fall down from the mountains”, cocaine sinking in a lagoon. The song comes across as autographical in the best way, a way for the narrator to tell a new lover the story of her past, very probably Jenny’s real life in song, and so why shouldn’t she be the one to sing it in all it’s specific detail?
The story songs are broken up by three short instrumental tunes that fit into the folk styling of the rest of the disc — three tunes that sound like traditional folk melodies. Sheinman plays the melodies as a fiddler (not in the same vein as her “jazz” playing with Frisell or, say, on her disc 12 Songs from 2005). These are very appealing miniatures (each about 90 seconds long, with no “improvising” in the jazz sense) that help to set the stories in that American place, those hillsides or rural places you can see as the lyrics unfold. The third, “Bent Nail”, is a biting duet between Sheinman and Blade — something rough and hard to get out of your head.
After this recording, you’re likely to find Jenny Sheinman just about anywhere — on the road with this band, playing jazz, morphing into something else hybrid, something new. This strand of her explorations, for me, is interesting but less appealing, than some others. But the artistic impulse to grow and change? I love that.