Wild & Far-Out Sounds from the South
Plenty has already been written about the sublime music of the mighty Reigning Sound, once of Memphis, lately of Asheville, North Carolina. Critical accolades and rabid fan-raving about the band have never been in short supply. So, it may be somewhat of an exercise in futility to rant on here at length about the particulars of their sound, how bandleader and songwriter Greg Cartwright and his band may be the best torchbearers for the empyrean spirit of rock & roll. But, in fact, they are all that. And, you may, in fact, already know it. When I listen to the Reigning Sound, as I do often, I find myself immersed in my memories of them—memories of seeing them play live on so many occasions, of where I was in my life, recollections sometimes dim and furtive, but always, it seems, negotiated only by the harmony and noise of Reigning Sound. But, I also think of seemingly trifling details about the group that, I think, speak to their greatness—a guitar, a jacket, a stance, a secret cinema of salient detail, the conveyance of potent rock & roll heroics. Greg Cartwright is still a hero. Here are five quick reasons I still revere him and his indomitable band.
In 2001, Reigning Sound released their first album, Break Up Break Down (Sympathy For The Record Industry). It’s probably the most beautiful, poignant, and intense song cycle about the dissolution of a relationship in rock music. It’s sad, painful, and intense. Throughout the record, from one song to the next, Cartwright’s voice is tender, but weary and agonized—frustrated. It sounds like you might imagine your own voice sounding when lamenting to a friend the sad passing of a romantic relationship you once thought held so much promise, a heavy curtain pulled on what once seemed luminous and perfect. In 2001, too, I played in a band called Tyler Keith & The Preacher’s Kids, and we shared the bill a number of times with Reigning Sound. The Preacher’s Kids were a rock & roll band, abundantly in debt and in thrall to a kind of heavy-handed, purist reading of the music—Jerry Lee Lewis, The Rolling Stones, The Standells, Faces. We toured relentlessly during that year, crossing the U.S. several times. Back home in Mississippi, the other guitar player in the band, Dru Dunnaway, and I were involved in relationships that were suffering from our dumb, cultivated, narcissistic plunge into the deep end of the hedonism pool. Things didn’t look so good. We were remorseful and forlorn, realizing we were spectacularly screwing up a good thing. Dru had brought on the road with him a homemade cassette of the new Reigning Sound LP and it ended up functioning as a kind of therapy for us, delivering something we couldn’t get in the heat and bluster of our own music. In particular, the song “Goodbye” burrowed into our consciousness, an antidote for our excess and selfishness; a sober transmission from home played so loud during 4 A.M. drives through the inky dark of rural Pennsylvania or winding down mountains in New York with windows rolled down to let in the cool, soft night air, the wind a kind of spectral accompanist to the song. Cartwright’s guitar solo communicated all of that bitterness and melancholy, too—perfectly and succinctly—and is, I’d argue, one of the best, most emotionally primal guitar solos ever committed to tape. It wasn’t uncommon to be a bit bleary-eyed and teary after those middle-of-the-night communions with “Goodbye,” and all of Break Up Break Down, really.
2. Compulsive Gamblers / Oblivians / Tip-Tops.
Reigning Sound is indeed heroic, but Greg Cartwright was also in a couple of other bands that are truly legendary, notably The Compulsive Gamblers and The Oblivians. These bands were from Memphis, and their influence can’t be overstated. The Compulsive Gamblers were big and brilliant—craft sharing the stage with instinct and nerve. Scott Rogers, bassist and member of defunct combos The Cool Jerks and The Dutch Masters (both bands featured ex-members of The Oblivians and The Compulsive Gamblers) remembers seeing The Compulsive Gamblers thusly: “I remember thinking about how much I loved it, but I don't actually remember IT. It's just a drunken twenty-year-old blur. I remember Jack Yarber (although I didn't know him at the time) wearing his porkpie hat, and that there were a bunch of dudes on stage (although one turned out to not be a dude), and I remember thinking how much I loved it after the fact.” A white-hot, drunken blur; a party mess full of sweat, spit, and blood. Absolute. The Oblivians recorded and played live in the mid-1990s. Their sound was tough, aggressive, even ferocious. Their distillation of punk, blues, and pop was like a massive, collapsed star, a singular and powerful thing that sucked everything into it and spit it all back out in a spasm of energy. I saw them play live only once, in New York City in 1995, the brainless excellence of the show still burned deep into my brain.
Greg Oblivian and The Tip-Tops. When The Oblivians broke up in the late 1990s, Cartwright (still using his nom de guerre, Greg Oblivian) made an LP with his wife, Esther. In a word, it’s precious. It’s also precocious: a tender, beautiful, intimate record that sometimes feels too naked, too lovely. Listening to it is a happy, guileless, voyeuristic pleasure. Most rock bands are just that—rock bands—groups with a silly, catholic reliance on burned-out notions of what rock bands should do and sound like. If one is lucky and able to transcend those damaged, lifeless ideas about the music, then one might have a chance of being in a truly great band. Greg Cartwright has been in four.
3. Cover songs.
Reigning Sound perform a particularly important service in that they turn on their audience, especially their younger audience, to a world of sometimes obscure, but nonetheless great, records via their inspired cover versions. The band has knocked out stellar, inspired readings of crucial songs by such artists as Nolan Strong, Glass Sun, The Swingin’ Yo-Yo’s, and Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs, amongst numerous others. Their version of the garage-punk warhorse “Brown Paper Sack” is the definitive modern rendition. And the band is no less brilliant when covering well-known songs from the rock canon (their versions of The Byrds’ “Here Without You” and The Beach Boys’ “I’m Just Waiting For The Day” being sly exercises in rock song arrangement, bringing more to the table than they left with).
4. DJ Greg.
I don’t know why he was in Oxford, but Greg Cartwright was. We ended up at the same late-night party, a typically raucous dance party at an out-of-the-way apartment building near the Oxford Square. Johnny Valiant, whose apartment and party it was, had a great collection of records and was (and is still) known to throw a feverish blast of after-midnight record spinning. It seems like Cartwright had a bunch of his own records with him, though I can’t really recall the details through the gauze and discontinuity of time (ca. 2004) and alcohol consumption. Whatever the case, Cartwright commandeered the turntable and proceeded to casually play a whole passel of the best records—oddball soul and r&b singles, 1960s garage-punk obscurities, 1970s punk-rock gems, deep-album cuts, curios forgotten by most. It was a hot living room of sonic perfection! I remember that he played Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Porterville,” an incredible, completely ignored track from the first routinely critically dismissed first CCR album, about five times in a row, the two of us bonding in a drunken, rabid babble of affirmation that ended only when the sun came up. Lesson: record nerds make the best rock stars.
5. The band.
Reigning Sound is not just Greg Cartwright, though. Reigning Sound is a band in the truest sense, the group all contributing to the texturally rich arrangements, stamping Cartwright’s songs with their own indelible, individual instrumental presence. For me, the first incarnation of Reigning Sound was the best. Perhaps that’s only because it’s the version of the group I’ve seen the most and listened to most intently. That first Reigning Sound—Jeremy Scott (bass), Greg Roberson (drums), Alex Greene (organ)—was maybe the most fluid rock band I’ve ever seen play live. They created a kind of sensuous, sonic moiré pattern effect live—wavy and shimmering like a hidden incandescence illuminating the rawness of Cartwright’s songs. They could make groups of great players and listeners, like Wilco, even, appear mechanical. It was a special group. The group changed when Cartwright moved to Asheville, but the band is still spectacular. The new group is David Wayne Gray on bass, Lance Wille on drums, and the magnificent organist, Dave Amels. They’re still recording great stuff—impossibly great stuff, truth be told. Their most recent record was released last fall, titled Abdication...For Your Love. Kristen Berry writing in the great online magazine, Get Bent, called it “shiver-inducing.” Just like all of Greg Cartwright’s records, it is. Here’s a rock & roll hero. His name is Greg Cartwright.