Music

Jenny Scheinman: Here on Earth

The 15 tracks here take the listener on an aural journey to the gritty past where the connections between being brave and realistic, courageous and coarse, liquored up and stone sober, are all part of the continuum of daily life.


Jenny Scheinman

Here on Earth

Label: Royal Potato Family
US Release Date: 2017-03-03
UK Release Date: 2017-03-03
Amazon
iTunes

Fiddler Jenny Scheinman has played live and recorded in a variety of different genres from Klezmer and jazz to folk to country to classical to the blues, and just about anywhere in between and wherever these styles fuse. To call her eclectic would be an understatement. She is a recognized talent who freely experiments and collaborates with others from all fields.

Scheinman composed the bulk of the songs on her latest release, Here on Earth for a project with filmmaker Finn Taylor based on archival footage of H. Lee Waters’, who took photographs of America’s Piedmont region during the Great Depression. The results, like the images, many of which are reproduced in miniature in the CD booklet, are stark and haunting -- but they are also lilting and innocent. She captures a myriad of human emotions and behaviors.

This is somewhat in contrast to the more familiar images of the South during the Depression, like those of Walker Evans in his and James Agee’s classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans and Agee revealed the stark dignity of the people who lived there. They documented how the other half lived so that citizens would empathize and help. Scheinman looks at the H. Lee Waters footage from the era and expresses a shared connection. She feels one with the characters, perhaps because of incidents in her past, and she understands that even in hard times life has its ups as well as downs.

Not having seen the film nor the photos except in reduced form, I may be reading too much into Scheinman's music. Be that as it may, describing instrumental music with words is difficult. Suffice it to say that the 15 tracks here take the listener on an aural journey to the gritty past where the connections between being brave and realistic, courageous and coarse, liquored up and stone sober, are all part of the continuum of daily life.

For example, on the coyly titled “Delinquent Bill”, one can easily imagine a person dancing his or her way to the bank, knowing one doesn’t have the money to make a payment. There’s something liberating in the way Scheinman’s fiddle swings that suggests money worries are like the fear of being hit by a meteor. There’s nothing one can do but go on with daily life.

Scheinman’s joined by multi-instrumentalist Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, tuba) and Bill Frissell on most of the tracks. Robbie Fulks joins her on guitar and banjo on three songs, and Robbie Gjersoe plays the resonator guitar on two cuts. Fulks poignantly addressed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on his last album, Upland Stories, and his work here is also noteworthy. Here on Earth begins with Fulks’ insistent guitar strumming that sets the pace for Scheinman to fiddle over, and it’s something special when he starts to pick or the two start to harmonize. Barnes and Frisell’s many contributions should not be overlooked as well. While Scheinman’s work takes up the musical foreground, the two others provide an array of settings for her to play.

Take the track “Hive of Bees”. Scheinman’s fiddle mimics buzzing through short, repetitive strokes while simultaneously adding a lively melody. Barnes and Frisell deepen the impact by playing at a lower register and mucking things up a bit with stray sounds. The result suggests the mystery of it all. Scheinman and company aren’t attributing anything menacing or honeyed to the bees -- the meaning is descriptive. A hive of bees is a hive of bees, nothing more, nothing less…

In the liner notes, Scheinman writes that this work is meant to celebrate the common person and as such, “These are melodies that anybody with a rudimentary musical skill can play.” That’s hogwash. From a musical standpoint, she may be correct. Another fiddler with limited talent may be able to hit all the notes. But Scheinman’s virtuosity lies in her ability to put the notes together into musical phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs that tell a story. Not a narrative one with a beginning, middle and end; Scheinman’s playing is more akin to abstract poetry whose connections are associative. One need not see the film or photos these pieces were written for to appreciate what makes them extraordinary. One just has to listen.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

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8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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