The Reigning Sound is the antithesis of fabricated pop music. Channeling pain, love, angst, and soul through Greg Cartwright’s passionate, dynamic songs, Love and Curses stands alongside Time Bomb High School as their finest hour to date.
Cartwright relocated to Asheville, North Carolina from his longtime base in Memphis, and the band followed. The current version of the quartet is probably its most proficient musical alignment. Drummer Lance Wille and new bassist David Wayne Gay are a deceptively strong backbone, and Dave Amels’ organ bleeds texture and verve throughout the album. Amels’ wonderful work is symbiotic, as critical to Cartwright’s vision as Al Kooper’s flourishes were to the early Bob Dylan albums. The production is vinyl warm, vocals out front, a wall of sound behind that eschews studio trickery and overdubs for sonic truth.
Like prior Reigning Sound albums, Cartwright offers a strong theme and excellent sequencing to make a powerful statement that flows with dynamic appeal. Despite the aroma of desperation, unrequited love, and loneliness in the lyrics, there’s an infectious magnetism to a man who can bare his soul so completely in his music. Cartwright is a happily married man with a family, but he’s able to dip into some dark places and channel the angst and pain of a tortured soul with amazing clarity. He’s willingly haunted, like the man in the horror movie who is warned not to go in the basement but clutches a lit match in shaky hands and starts the descent anyway. The album was recorded over time in two studios but has the immediacy of a group documenting a feverish all-nighter, and the balance of hard rock and desperate shuffles is flawless.
This is the first Reigning Sound album in five years, although Cartwright has been busy working with the Detroit Cobras, Mary Weiss, and a briefly reunited Oblivians. Two of the songs on this new album first appeared on Weiss’ 2007 comeback album Dangerous Game, although her versions of “Break It One More Time” (titled “Brake It” here) and “Dangerous Game” are far more sedate than the cathartic, Red Bull versions on Love and Curses. Ditto “Call Me” and “If I Can’t Come Back”, two raucous rockers where Cartwright’s raw emotional vocals add new dimension to already strong material. He’s always been a great and underappreciated songwriter, but he’s also grown into a skilled and passionate vocalist.
Although it’s hard to pick a favorite among so many gems, perhaps the one-two punch of “Debris” and “Stick Up For Me” is the musical apex of the record. The discarded lover in “Debris” might be bitter at his fate as the “other guy”, but he’s not going quietly. Cartwright is almost howling as he wonders, “is there another lover there in your room / does he even know about me”, before declaring that he is irrevocably broken (“this debris / is all that’s left of me”). The lone cover tune on the album follows: a pile-driving version of “Stick Up For Me” where being blinded by sexual opportunity is a thin metaphor for the danger of being lulled into complacency while an uncaring government strips away your soul. It’s another example of how Cartwright brilliantly unearths lost singles and garage rock gems and weaves them into his own cadre of songs like they share the same DNA.
And before all the Decemberists fans get all bent out of shape about the cadence and instrumentation of “Banker and a Liar”, let me politely remind them that their heroes did not invent the sea shanty. Colin Meloy is no slouch, but he could never launch such a scathing social commentary within a bouncy, jaunty shuffle. Cartwright views the current sociopolitical environment with the same precision as his takes on the lovelorn and the desperate, since the common themes of deceit and powerlessness apply:
And if their money don’t fulfill you
There are medicines that will do
All the thinking for you so you can relax
The poison kiss of easy living
Full of shit and unforgiving
To the poor who rest it’s burden on their backs
Musically invigorating, lyrically exciting, and thematically prescient from start to finish, Love and Curses gets my vote as the best album of 2009.