RODNEY CROWELL "Sex & Gasoline" Work Song/Yep Roc JENNY SCHEINMAN "Jenny Scheinman" "Crossing the Field" Koch

Friday, October 17, 2008

RODNEY CROWELL"Sex & Gasoline"Work Song/Yep RocJENNY SCHEINMAN"Jenny Scheinman""Crossing the Field"Koch

ON HIS LAST two albums, "Fate's Right Hand" and "The Outsider," and on the first three songs of his new album, "Sex & Gasoline," Rodney Crowell has tried to present himself as a Dylanesque commentator on the absurdities of our age. The effort has clicked sporadically, but it's not his most comfortable role.

After the new record's first three songs, Crowell returns to his strengths: matching gorgeous country-pop melodies to acute observations on love and lust and delivering them all in his thrilling tenor. Supported by L.A.'s best country-rock musicians and working for the first time with producer Joe Henry, Crowell dissects a sexual triangle on "I Want You #35," admits his shortcomings on "Truth Decay" (a duet with Phil Everly) and laments a lost love on "I've Done Everything I Can" (a duet with Henry). It's a return to form.

Jenny Scheinman, the new member of Crowell's touring trio (with Will Kimbrough), is best known as a jazz violinist who has recorded with Bill Frisell, Norah Jones and John Zorn. "Crossing the Field," one of her two new albums, reflects her instrumental jazz background in a dozen original compositions (plus Duke Ellington's "Awful Sad"). Six of the pieces feature a string orchestra that expands on harmonies that waver between off-kilter eeriness and sumptuous satisfaction. Other tunes, featuring Frisell and/or pianist Jason Moran, boast rhythms that knot and loosen, knot again and loosen again. Scheinman plays splendidly throughout.

It's the other album, however, that caught Crowell's ear. Much like Charlie Haden's new project, "Jenny Scheinman" returns to the folk and country music of her childhood. Her producer, Tony Scherr, another Frisell collaborator, creates stripped-down, raw-edged arrangements that allow Scheinman's less-than-powerful but striking soprano to come through effectively. She sings "I Was Young When I Left Home" (a traditional tune associated with Bob Dylan), Mississippi John Hurt's "Miss Collins," Lucinda Williams's "King of Hearts" (Scheinman handled the strings on Williams's "West" album) and four original songs.

On first listen, it sounds like a respectable alt-country project; it's only on the second or third time around that you notice how the arrangements have been given a strange, invigorating jazz twist.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Tuesday at the Birchmere (703-549-7500, Show starts at 7:30 p.m.

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