Music

Reigning Sound: Love and Curses

The antithesis of fabricated pop music. Greg Cartwright channels pain, love, angst, and soul through his passionate, dynamic songs.


Reigning Sound

Love and Curses

Label: In the Red
US Release Date: 2009-08-11
UK Release Date: Import
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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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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