[25 June 2008]
Violinist and vocalist Jenny Scheinman has quite the music resume. Having backed such artists as Norah Jones, Bill Frisell, and Marc Ribot (and countless others), as well as having arranged Lucinda Williams’ West and Bono’s A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates, Scheinman’s versatility gives her musical prowess a run for its money. Scheinman offers two vastly different glimpses of Americana with her simultaneous releases, Jenny Scheinman and Crossing the Field. On the former, Scheinman lauds the type of “old-timey” country classics providing the skeleton around which she built her musical identity. She calls the album her letter home. On the latter title, Scheinman embraces the moments of jazz (bebop, free jazz) she has continued to incorporate in making her own style of music. In a way, she leads a string orchestra and a jazz septet on a classical-jazz journey.
With her self-titled vocal release, Scheinman exhibits her exceptional musical taste alongside her unique interpretations of songs by such artists as Tom Waits, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Platters. What results is an extended saunter along different aspects of American roots music punctuated by Scheinman’s until-now-downplayed vocal talent. Produced and recorded by Tony Scherr (Feist, Willie Nelson, Marianne Faithful, and Sex Mob), this album breaks down into four parts: early band tracks, early duos, austere acoustic, and layered productions. Of those, the first two types of songs were recorded live as first takes. All of the tracks were recorded to eight-track analog tape. Both of these methods allowed for a rough finish, embracing imperfections as part of the craft. Five-to-seven minute tracks allow Scheinman the time to fully explore some of the forgotten and oft-overlooked subtleties of Americana’s nuances. A take on Lucinda Williams’ “King of Hearts” (an early duo) involves a slow building of tension with lazy lower vocal harmonies and sluggish guitar (provided by Scherr).
Her copper vocal twangs drip with tenderness and vulnerability, as if at any second she might break pitch. But with a perceived defect arises a certain vocal strength. The initial track, Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home”, involves Scheinman’s minimal arrangements highlighting her voice’s raw and untouched sensibility. Steel guitar and Scheinman’s occasional grainy violin interludes echo her vocal texture. In between the mostly-cover songs lie a few original selections that take on more of a pop-rock approach. Of those, “Come on Down” rocks with a summery, Sheryl Crow, state fair mood, with a continual high-hat tempo enforcer. Offshoots of jamming have just the right amount of presence. Rightly, the rocking jive is based on none other than “Little Richard and rock-and-roll, the banished children of the church”.
Crossing the Field, by contrast, paints portraits of sweeping landscapes and breezy fields of tall grass. Scheinman’s violin swoops in amongst a grandiose set of strings in the initial track, “Born Into This”. The grand scale continues in “I Heart Eye Patch” with an almost-ragtime, boogie-woogie low piano percussion (by Jason Moran) set along the frenzy of Western daily life. Thoughts of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma creep into the mix as the refrain returns to its course.
Some of the soundscapes created recall the early-American sounds of Aaron Copland, as Scheinman drifts from sleepy, lullaby lines of strings (“Ana Eco”), to irate sections of tumultuous violins (“The Careeners”). Instead of mostly covers, this disc contains mostly original selections with one cover song (Duke Ellington’s “Awful Sad”). Scheinman showcases the inclusion of pop, jazz, and folk music with the chamber and orchestra learned culture. Sometimes the buildups can take a bit too long, and some of the slow moods are a bit too drifty. However, an attentive ear can hear nods to certain themes or eras, while the passive audience revels in the assortment of the types of sounds immersed together.
Among the mix of genre-influences is “Hard Sole Shoe”, a selection backed by serious funk grooves with a flowing stream of strings and bop-piano overtop. Moran slowly builds his piano voice over the course of the selection, as the rest of the sounds simmer and ruminate. “Old Brooklyn” finishes the disc with a stark horn solo while delicate tones are barely played, recalling the opening track on a much smaller scale. The track pays homage to the many Scheinman Brooklyn-native generations. A brushed drumhead smoothes the rest of the sound into a restful closer. The two releases, while perhaps trying a listener’s patience in length, lovingly show different facets of Americana while standing in stark contrast with one another.