The downside to instrumental mastery can be historical reverence. A longtime fixture on the Triangle scene, Jon Shain is a first-rate guitar picker. But he sometimes follows too closely in the path of the traditional acoustic blues and folk legends whose lessons he has learned so well. On Ordinary Cats, Shain's latest in a 14-year line of solo discs, he expertly echoes his predecessors on songs such as the wartime story "Soldier's Pay," the old-timey drinking tune "A Dram Lest We Get Dry" and the woozy-bluesy "Station Master." While Shain nails the form, these recordings feel like the voices of his forebears rather than his own.
But on much of Ordinary Cats, Shain pushes toward a more personal artistry. On "Level It Out," the album's finest song, he delivers a mission statement for equanimity, set to a steady and gentle melody that echoes the lyric's theme. Both the title track and "Cut Out Bin," the album's opening pair, find Shain in a reflective frame of mind: On the former, he sings to wistful, sprightly accompaniment about carefree days with childhood friends in New Jersey; the latter is an instantly appealing folk-pop number about the glory days of hanging out in the local record shop, buoyed by an engaging duet vocal from Lizzy Ross.
There's a similar twinge of longing in "You Cannot Hide Your Heart From the Band," an ode to an old friend (or flame?) who went on to some semblance of fame: "I hear your song on the radio these days ... the sound's the same but your voice has aged." If all this seems a bit nostalgic, it connects because Shain sells it with his singing. At his best, he sounds not like a distillation of bygone legends but rather like himself.
Label: Flyin' Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Veteran volleys."