[17 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
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.
Those influences fought through the scuzz and sneer of the Oblivians and on Reigning Sound’s most well-known album, the aptly titled Too Much Guitar, all the soul in Cartwright’s honeycombed voice had to fight through slashing distortion. Overall, though, Reigning Sound has been a palate on which Cartwright makes his most clear musical statements. He mixes those influences with airtight compositions, his own ranging and deeply emotive voice, and a singularly irrepressible rock ‘n roll energy. The players have changes around Cartwright over the years, so there’s shifts from the fire of Too Much Guitar to the sweeter melodies of Break Up Break Down and the odds ‘n’ sods set Home for Orphans, and somewhere in between those poles is the lean crunch of the band’s 2009 effort, Love and Curses.
But to get to Shattered, Reigning Sound’s latest album and first for Merge Records, Cartwright first had to make 2011’s Abdication…For Your Love. The eight-song set was a free promotional EP made for Scion A/V, and five of its song were produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. But it also marked a shift. This set saw the last recordings Cartwright made with the Love and Curses rhythm section of Lance Willie and David Wayne Gay. But the EP also brought him together with new players. Mike Cantanese, Benny Trokan, and Mikey Post, who all played with organist Dave Amels in soul group the Jay Vons, recorded some of those tunes in 2011, and the newest version of Reigning Sound was born.
That’s the band you hear on the tight, endlessly tuneful Shattered. The album peels back on any of the crunch you heard back on Too Much Guitar and even much of the scuff that faintly coated Love and Curses. Instead, you get a carefully crafted and bright sounding pop record, the kind that so carefully meshes influence and originality that it sounds timeless. “North Cackalacky Girl” opens with a barely distorted hook that hides in the mix behind rundown backing vocals and sweet organ work. It’s the kind of surf-rock gem that is as much sweet sun as it is churning waves. It’s an energetic introduction, but it’s also at least partly a sleight of hand.
“Never Coming Home” puts heartache front and center. There’s a yearning to “North Cackalacky Girl”, but that is the classic in-the-moment want rock ‘n’ roll has always made its home. “Never Coming Home” finds “no trace of your perfume in my room.” Whatever love was found long ago has left, and so strings sweep in as Cartwright has to admit to himself “you meant it when you said it / You were leaving and never coming home.” There’s the immediate dust of the acoustic guitar shuffling, that very real and very now isolation, but those strings sweep around it like some romantic fog, the kind of denial we all have to sweep away when eventually after someone leaves.
Cartwright has always had a knack for the vocabulary and cadence of heartbreak, but Shattered is him at his most precise. “Falling Rain” may have “a whole lot more to this story”, but even as it talks of scars it also talks of the “light of love’s true glories”. And it’s this insistence that love returns that drives even the darkest, most lonely moments of the record. The country shuffle of “If You Gotta Leave”, awash in melted basslines and twanging guitar, seems to understand and accept an end, while low, group vocals push away from that end and towards freedom on “It’s Too Late, Baby” (the lone cover here, written by Garland Hilton and recorded by Shadden and the King Lears in 1967). For every “You Did Wrong”, there’s a “Starting New”. And, in the album’s final track, the soulful “I’m Trying (To Be the Man the You Need)”, Cartwright wanders over dreamy guitars and blue-light organ, listing his shortcomings while aiming at repairs.
This mix of what was and what is, what was lost and what could be found next, informs the music here as well. The band delivers tight foundations for Cartwright’s songs, while Dave Amels’ organ fills up space and meshes the vocal melodies with taut rhythms. Meanwhile, Cartwright’s songs shuffle around the language rock, soul, and R&B have always used to talk about love both lost and found. Eyes “sparkle and shine”, women are called “baby”, young men are driven wild. But this isn’t borrowing so much as Cartwright knowing the language he’s speaking and using it with clarity. You’ve heard some of these words before, sometimes in this order, but never with Cartwright’s voice and keen eye for detail, nor with his band’s chemistry and potent mix of confidence and desperation.
These songs are cleanly produced, sweet even, but the emotions and zeal with which they are delivered are raw. And at the heart of Shattered is one of Cartwright’s finest vocal performances in his career. He bays like a wolf on “North Cackalacky Girl”. He pines with bittersweet fragility on “Never Coming Home”. He wails with a bluesy edge on “My My”. Shattered is the kind of record that pays tribute to the past, even walks in its shadow, but also provides its own strut. Cartwright and Reigning Sound, with another consistent album, could have shown us the resilience of rock music at its most elemental. But with this brilliant turn they take it a step further. They prove you don’t need to deconstruct genre to make it new. You just need to write great songs, know where they came from, and play the hell out of them.