Release Date: Jul 15, 2014
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Over several studio albums, Reigning Sound’s musical focal point has never been easy to pinpoint. Unlike a swath of other experimental maestros, Greg Cartwright’s insistence on inconsistency is a really good thing. As de facto ringleader since the band’s inception in 2001, Cartwright has been surrounded by a veritable turnstile committee of agile musicians, cultivating varying muses based on the strengths afforded him.Shattered, Reigning Sound’s first album since 2009’s Love & Curses, is yet another bend in the road, positing soulful rockers, scrappy R&B ballads and rowdy pop numbers in brilliant balance.
Greg Cartwright, the principal member and songwriter for Reigning Sound, spends a lot of time collecting music. He has his own vast collection, but he also essentially heads up the acquisition and sales of 45s for Harvest Records in Asheville, North Carolina, the town he moved to from Memphis, where Reigning Sound first made its name, after Cartwright had already had great runs with the Oblivians and Compulsive Gamblers. This collecting of music, this archiving of musical history, has always bled into Cartwright’s music, as thick layers of R&B, country, soul, and pure rock ‘n’ roll spread over his songs like a coat of dust on a yard-sale bin single.
Greg Cartwright has always been a rock & roller with the heart of a soul man, but on his fifth studio album with Reigning Sound, 2014's Shattered, it's the soul man who speaks the loudest. After a five-year layoff, during which Cartwright had to deal with the death of a handful of family and friends (including his onetime bandmate and protégé Jay Reatard), Reigning Sound have a new lineup again, and Shattered is a more measured and contemplative set than this group has released in the past, as Cartwright's new songs reflect his deep love of classic soul music. Cartwright sounds passionate but sadly reflective on tracks like "If You Gotta Leave" and "In My Dreams," and while he can still turn up the amps and rock with authority on numbers like "North Cackalacky Girl" and "My My," it's the sad songs that dominate Shattered and ultimately matter the most.
For a brief period during the post-White Stripes goldrush of the early noughties, the garage rock of Reigning Sound – essentially the creative vehicle of Memphis songwriter Greg Cartwright – seemed ripe for crossover success. That it never quite happened probably doesn't bother Cartwright much; a decade on he treads a familiar path of homespun blues and rock'n'roll, happily unencumbered by musical fashion and with deeply satisfying results. He doesn't share the asceticism of some of his retro-fetishist peers; these songs are richly textured and swell with personality, especially the beautifully orchestrated heartbreak of Never Coming Home.
Greg Cartwright has had a guiding hand in an almost unreasonable number of great garage-rock acts over the last couple of decades, among them the Oblivians, the Compulsive Gamblers, the Parting Gifts and perhaps greatest of all, Reigning Sound – whose early-noughties albums Time Bomb High School and Too Much Guitar both stand up as truly unimpeachable rock'n'roll-soul classics. The all-out blazing fuzz of that era is understandably less in evidence these days, but Cartwright's extraordinary ear for heartbreaking melodies and artful arrangements is as keen as ever. Indeed, the exquisite, string-laden likes of Never Coming Home and the almost Bacharachesque Once More must be among the most swooningly gorgeous songs he's ever written.
Greg Cartwright’s Reigning Sound came into existence in 2001, just as garage rock was readying an assault on the mainstream that would make Jack White one of the least likely superstars of the nascent 21st century. White, of course, had already been kicking around the garage-rock scene for years— but nowhere near as long as Cartwright, whose résumé stretches back to the ’80s, although he made his first mark with the Memphis band the Compulsive Gamblers in the early ’90s. His subsequent group, Oblivians, became his best known, and for good reason: Like a chunk of bloody meat chucked into a carburetor, Oblivians was a wonderful mess of primitive R&B and punk.
Merge Records seemingly specialize in releasing albums from bands whose dependability translates to buying each new release without hearing a note. At this point, no one needs to preview the newest Superchunk or Lambchop single to know the attendant album will be good-to-great, will scratch a very specific itch. The same goes for Spoon, Wye Oak, Arcade Fire, and the label’s recent signee, garage rock revivalists Reigning Sound.
Greg Cartwright finds a new home on Merge for the latest incarnation of Reigning Sound, and continues his heart-on-the-sleeve, southern-fried mining of '50s and '60s R&B, '60s Nuggets psych and garage rock fodder, and—still, despite the softening edges and string arrangements—a sprinkling of punk swagger. As with the last full-length, 2009's Love & Curses, the volume's just turned down a bit. Recording in the Daptone's House of Soul studio in Brooklyn seems to have lent the proceedings a perfect patina of warm, midrange goodness, with Dave Amels' percussive .
“I don’t want no favors/ I don’t want no one-night stands,” Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright pleads on “North Cackalacky Girl”, the opening track off his band’s Merge debut, Shattered. It’s the first chorus off the LP and quite the statement from the Asheville-via-Memphis singer-songwriter, who aptly sets up what’s to come. Simply put, the ever-prolific Cartwright is an eager heart with only one name, one face, and one pair of hands he wants to hold.
When someone gets around to a creating a “What garage-rock hero are you?” online quiz—and it’s just a matter of time—the answer to get is Greg Cartwright. Dan Auerbach seems like too much of a striver. Jack White is a weirdo. Mick Collins wouldn’t be bad, but not even the supremely cool Dirtbombs leader can match the gut-punching soulfulness and sheer likability of Cartwright, the man behind such bands as the Oblivians, Compulsive Gamblers, and best of all, Reigning Sound.
Reigning Sound — Shattered (Merge)At this point, Greg Cartwright isn’t going to throw us many curveballs. Save for 2004’s appropriately named Too Much Guitar, Reigning Sound’s mined the same mix of greasy garage rock and Memphis soul for five reliably riffy records since the 2001 Break Up, Break Down. Longer, even: The eminence grise of garage rock, Cartwright predated the still-going-strong garage-rock revival by about a decade, first with The Compulsive Gamblers and later with the more (in)famous The Oblivians, a band that would make him a critical forebear to Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and a friend and mentor to the late Jay Reatard.
Following hot on the heels of last year’s Desperation, the Oblivians’ comeback record, Greg Cartwright (AKA Greg Oblivian) drains his other main vein with Shattered, the first Reigning Sound record in five years. Apparently Cartwright exorcised his punk rock demons with Desperation, as Shattered is the band’s most accessible record yet. Recorded at Daptone Studios and given a warm, dry sound that doesn’t allow for distortion overload, the songs deserve kind treatment in any case.