CD Review – Jon Shain “Ordinary Cats”
It’s no secret that each Roots region has a knack for blending multiple instruments to create the Americana multi-genre that the No Depression reader loves. Artists in this category take creative liberties that push Old Time and Traditional acoustic boundaries. With Doc Watson, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Avett Brothers, Midtown Dickens, and Chatham County Line leading the pack, North Carolina artists continue to explore ways to push the traditional Appalachian musical envelope. They are not afraid to mix mandolin with electric guitar while the accompanying standup bass is softly bowed. Doc called it “Folk Plus”.
In Ordinary Cats, Jon Shain’s middle-class blues and rock influences converge with North Carolina’s unique blend of independent ”Folk Plus” music. His fifth release, this record’s strength lies in Shain’s songwriting and the deep bench of talent assembled. A complete North Carolina production from talent to mixing and mastering, Ordinary Cats features the vocals of up-and-coming female vocalist Lizzy Ross, Dillon Fence’s Greg Humphreys, and Shain’s longtime collaborator and co-producer, FJ Ventre. In addition to Shain on lead electric and acoustic guitar and Ventre’s electric and upright bass, dBs Chris Stamey fills in on percussion, 12-string guitar and harmonium, while Danny Gotham provides mandolin coverage. Holding down the beat with a Neil Young vibe is Birds and Arrows drummer Pete Connolly. In addition to the talent, production is exclusively recorded, mixed and mastered by Carolinians FJ Ventre, Chris Stamey, and Jeff Carroll from Bluefield Mastering.
With its laid back major chord progression, the title cut, Ordinary Cats, could be the opening song to a Ryan Gosling movie about grander college days spent with his invincible buddies in New York City, each one having moved on and up to high-profile careers and settled in their suburban lives. The ironic twist would be that it is their current lives that are ordinary. One could add Sarah Frost to that same soundtrack. Inspired by his heroes Neil Young and Stephen Stills, Shain employs a Stills acoustic melodic riff while filling in with a Young like electric tone through the song. The haunting background vocals and full band sound, this song sounds great with headphones (or really, really loud in your car).
Perfect for a summertime convertible top-down jam, track 2 Cut Out Bin depicts that exciting crush from a distance. This particular romance takes place in a record shop; however, it could have taken place in a mall or coffee shop. Lizzy Ross portrays the love interest. Her smoky vocals complements Shain’s gently weathered voice. With its sweet hook, subtle keyboards, deep bass and drums, Cut Out Bin is sure to please those who love to dance while singing along.
An historian and philosopher, Shain broaches the subjects of war and the juxtaposition of how one balances an optimistic life in arduous times with the perspective of a working man’s son and the urgent empathy of a concerned father. In Soldier’s Reel, he crafts a graphic story of modern war yet utilizes a traditional military arrangement intentionally validating the timelessness of war’s brutality. Left with a feeling of doom, Shain clears the listener’s auditory palate by following up with a toe-tapping original instrumental, Soldier’s Pay, featuring Danny Gotham on mandolin and FJ Ventre on upright bass. In Level It Out, the philosophical Shain explores the restlessness and discontent one reaches with getting what he wants. Then, Shain weighs fracking and off shore drilling as viable solutions to foreign oil dependence: Luckier than Most addresses the dark realities of repeatable and timeless current events as well as our indifference to do something. His stoic, Tom Petty-like vocal delivery neither stirs one to anger nor action. It just declares that “life’s kind of bad” and Shain takes pause to reflect on what he can or should do.
Known primarily as a bluesman, Shain is a master of the Piedmont blues style. In Station Master, he demonstrates the traditional elements of 1930s Ragtime-Piedmont blues as the vehicle to frame a humorous yet poignant narrative of a fellow who’s hit bottom. His attention to abiding to early blues form in Dram Lest We Get Dry is one of my favorite Jon Shain blues singles. With minimal kick drum and tambourine accompaniment, DLWGD features his alternating thumb, slide and foot work. In contrast to the traditional blues of the previous tracks, If You Ever Flew Away, breaks from customary songwriting form. Free from the constraints of 12 bars or choruses Shain meanders through the metaphorically woeful response to lost love.
Whether he’s contemplating how quickly life slips by as explored in my track favorite track, Decompression, or the complexities of bandmate relationships in You Cannot Hide Your Heart From the Band, Jon Shain easily rolls through musical genres throughout this engagingly eclectic project. He gently confronts the audacity of trying to keep it together in the midst of economic turmoil, fading childlike innocence, war, and even rising temperatures, but still pauses to celebrate a young crush and past days with college buddies.
Like Shain’s previous work, Ordinary Cats, is a wide-ranging collection of songs masterfully rendered in several styles from folk to rock and pop to blues. His original with a traditional twist is a brilliant representation of “Folk Plus” envisioned by Doc Watson It’s an excellent sample of the talent and technical offerings that makes North Carolina a base for many artists. Among those artists, Jon Shain continues to hold top positions as songwriter, guitarist, and independent producer.