Violinist, composer, improviser, and songwriter Jenny Scheinman has been an in-demand session player for decades, is a member of Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet, and has released seven previous solo recordings. That said, the one aspect of her musical persona we've heard too little from until now is the Americana singer/songwriter on display on The Littlest Prisoner, her debut for Sony Masterworks, produced by Tucker Martine. The ten pieces here are minimally adorned. Usually, it's just her voice and violin with Frisell's guitar and Brian Blade's drums; bassist Tony Garner also appears occasionally. Scheinman's songs flow from a deeply centered wellspring of emotionally committed storytelling. "Brother" is a four/four country song that finds the protagonist wondering aloud about the role of a friend in a fraternal context. Her insight is keen: "...If you were my brother you'd bust me if I lied/If you were my brother I wouldn't even try/Cause you'd be the proof so what would be the use?" "Run Run Run" adds her violin in a strident yet elegiac modern bluegrass. The title track -- with Bruce Cockburn's guitar added to the mix -- is a cut-time, naked, first-person confessional from a convict mother speaking intimately to her as yet unborn child. Despite its bracing lyric, the tune is sprightly, almost danceable, and her brief violin break adds an unexpected air of celebration. There are also three brief instrumental waltzes here. They act as bridge-like reveries stretching the weight of memory into the light of the present. Two are duets -- one each with Frisell and Blade. "Houston" is spacious, airy, languid country, in which the protagonist reveals her heart's vulnerability to a lover who can't seem to commit one way or another. Scheinman's carefully crafted lyric exhorts him to make up his mind, and offers room for her voice to express not only susceptibility but unapologetic desire. The reverie "Just a Child" dreamily reflects on being the child of hippie parents. It's warm and humorous but also pointed. "Sacrifice," a song about divorce, closes the record in shadow. Its repetitive two-chord vamp underscores the narrator's determination to bear her loss and pain honestly. Scheinman's protagonist calls a spade a spade: "Spoil a marriage spoil a life/Men weren't born to sacrifice…." Frisell's guitar rings and bites at the ends of her lines as Blade's hushed processional of drums buoy the clarity of purpose in her voice. That it all ends with a child borne in the arms of its storyteller lends the tune an air of tragedy, but more importantly, the commitment to the heart's resurrection. Scheinman's songwriting on The Littlest Prisoner observes, remembers without regret, and testifies to abundant life, all from the inside. Her voice is crystalline, it inquires as it affirms. It draws the other instruments toward it as ingredients in a spell. Her music is rootsy and grounded, but performed with elegance, while her lyrics, though often poignant and gritty, are delivered with grace.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek