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Jon Shain 

When a guy grows a beard, so they say, it's because he's going through some changes. Compare the furry Jon Shain on the cover of Fools and Fine Ladies with the music inside, and you'll have to agree. Even longtime followers of Shain from his days with Flyin' Mice and Wake should be knocked out by the ambition of this great album of original tunes.

Shain reaches down deep and comes up with some genuinely gritty, cigarette-and-whiskey vocals on blues like "Luck Don't Come Easy" and "Mountain Tune"--testimony to his tutelage with Piedmont bluesmen like John Dee Holeman, and stages shared with folks like Leon Russell. There's a retro feel hanging over much of the music here; the CD's best cut, "Fine Ladies," could pass as a vintage Stones number, and there's a guileless exuberance to songs like "Pawn Shop Girl" and "Sherry Ann."

Even good-time, finger-style tunes like "Chincoteague Chick-a-dee" and "Govinda's in the Rain" (written about the former Carrboro eatery) are complex and textured; the latter gets spice from the Wyllie sitar-guitar featured on Shain's last solo effort, Brand New Lifetime. A signature Shain ballad like "Fools" is fleshed out by Dave DiGuiseppe's mandolin, and the moody "Drunken Horses," written with confreres John Currie and FJ Ventre, is a showcase for Currie's dobro and Mark Simonsen's vibes. Shain is also well-served by Red Clay Rambler Chris Frank on piano and accordion, Bill Newton on harmonica and Taz Halloween's percussion and backup vocals.

Call it musical maturity, or an intangible intersection of solid tunes and solid musicianship: Fools and Fine Ladies marks a giant step for Jon Shain, from folky tunesmith to artist to be reckoned with.

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