Abdication…For Your Love was originally commissioned by Scion (yes, the car people) for a promotional giveaway in 2011. It subsequently became something of a rarity. It has now been reissued on Merge Records, and the world is a better place as a result. Longer than an EP and shorter than a full album, this is a snapshot of a new version of the longtime band functioning at precociously peak efficiency and making their craft seem effortless. This is artisanal music that sounds almost deliberately like its opposite.
Abdication was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright himself and recorded at Auerbach’s newly-established Nashville studio. Studio time had been booked for the recording, but with no band members beside Cartwright available, his original Memphis lineup having fallen apart, he was considering calling time on the whole project. He called in emergency reinforcements in the form of Brooklyn’s Jay Vons and the collaboration stuck. What at the time was a makeshift band turned into the lineup that endures today. This was the band that went on to make the pristine Shattered in 2014.
Reigning Sound are the platonic ideal of a certain kind of band. They are the Zombies, Rockpile, Them, jangliest-era Byrds, and even the Stranglers, among others, all rolled into a perfectly tight, permanently prickly, and endlessly melodic bundle. Reigning Sound is the perfect engine. Every piece fits seamlessly with every other piece, and the whole thing hums at a cruising speed of faster miles an hour. The band is also interestingly named because they do indeed tap into a deep vein of the dominant sound of popular music from a certain canonical period whose apotheosis was somewhere between 1965 and 1968, a vein that has been re-tapped endlessly ever since (see early-to- peak-era Costello, for example). It’s a well we seem to have kept going back to, for better or for worse, but Greg Cartwright has absolutely perfected his deployment of these raw materials. He has taken this machine apart and reassembled it so many times that by now he can do it blindfolded, even though in 2011 he was performing with a brand new lineup. Any of the songs presented here could be a deep cut by your favorite rock and soul outfit.
The fantastically ominous opening of “Lyin’ Girl” comes at you with thumping drums and a spectacular keyboard sound in a way that makes you think absolutely anything could happen next. It’s utterly exhilarating and also absolutely typical of the Reigning Sound sound. This is their bread and butter, and it’s an effortless riot of menacing undercurrents, rasping overcurrents, and a delicious middle stratum. This is exactly what rock and roll music is supposed to sound like and it’s done in 2:46, only to roll right into another slice of sub-three-minute perfection with “Everything I Do Is Wrong”, which could easily be the b-side to the Zombies’ “She’s Not There”, while “Lyin’ Girl” could have been a previously unreleased Stranglers demo.
“Shaw” might be the highlight of the album, perhaps because it is both the most typically buoyant song musically and also, on its face, the most inscrutable song lyrically. It turns out to be a tribute to Detroit scene legend, promoter, music archivist, artist, vintage clothing purveyor, tastemaker and all-around Renaissance man Jim Shaw, who died in 2010, shortly before this album was recorded. Cartwright’s dedication to the minutiae of his craft goes deep and for him to single out such a garage band luminary as Shaw signals his attention to music tradition and to history in a very particular and gracious fashion. Reigning Sound carry a torch that Shaw himself also held aloft for many years.
Everything falls wonderfully into place on “Shaw”, from the opening keyboard cascade, to the relentless strut of the bass and the subsequent staccato organ flowing into rich extended chords, underpinned by a super-tight snare, all of which resolves into a blistering guitar solo before returning to the main figure whose arrangement is subtly encased in a shimmering echo. This is just about a perfect song, and it segues effortlessly into another terrific song, “Call Me #1”, accompanied by another Reigning Sound signature, the distant and high-pitched backing vocal contributions, which clearly display the soul roots of the Jay Vons.
Cartwright also knows a little about pacing an album sequence and proceedings down for a couple of minutes on “Eve”, which is a pause for breath on a pleasing ballad before we rev the engine back up for the rousing “Watching My Baby”. This might be the second highlight of the album in a much less inscrutable and much dirtier way than “Shaw”. The changes of pace here seem organic, and the song sounds rough as if it was recorded in the grimiest of garages or the sweatiest of bars, but everything about it is also absolutely precise and controlled. It’s almost reminiscent of that moment on Get Happy when Elvis Costello sings “High Fidelity” like he’s consumed all the whiskey and all the speed and it’s 3:00 am, and he’s just bitter and angry, and his voice is shot but he’s just going to give it one more take, or when Springsteen makes a surprise appearance at a Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes set to run out an impromptu version of “Sherry Darling”. The tie has been loosened. The top button has been undone.
As we have already observed, the Reigning keyboard sound is a form of musical ambrosia, and it is typified by “Can’t Hold On”, which seems to exist in the classic bar band arena of jealousy, lies, and hooks for miles. When you combine that sumptuous keyboard sound with the band’s driving rhythm section you have a recipe for all the rock and roll you will ever need. It isn’t always four on the floor, but when it is (and even when it isn’t, let’s face it) you feel like you’re being driven at high speed by an extremely competent and at the same time very reckless operator. “Can’t Hold On” seems to encapsulate and synthesize all of that in under three minutes. There are parts of this album, and “Can’t Hold On” is one of them, that feel like the best kind of wooden roller coaster.
The closing track of the original release, “Not Far Away” is perfectly in keeping with everything else here and wraps things up nicely with more of everything we have enjoyed so far, including those signature keyboards and sweet backing vocals, but it is an outlier in terms of its length, at 3:39. Everything else on here comes in at right around three minutes or less. For this re-issue, we also get a bonus track, “What Did I Tell You”, and it does serve as a fitting summary and recap of what has gone before. Cartwright gets out by telling us what he has told us and a bow is duly put on what would constitute a perfect short set at the corner bar. Meanwhile, we grab more drinks and rave about the band while we wait eagerly for the next set on a perfect night out.