Greg Cartwright formed three modern-classic Memphis bands — The Compulsive Gamblers, The Oblivians, and The Reigning Sound — before relocating to Asheville, North Carolina, six years ago. Lately, he's spent more time in his hometown playing with the technically defunct Gamblers and Oblivians than his current band, which has been on a quasi-hiatus in the years between 2004's Too Much Guitar and the band's new Love and Curses .
" Too Much Guitar came out after I'd already moved," Cartwright says. "It was all in the can before I left. Once I moved and it came out, I was busy trying to get settled [in Asheville] for a couple of years and then once I got settled a lot of work picked up with other bands — trying to help other people produce their records or playing on other peoples' records, or writing material on other people's records. That kind of took front and center for a couple of years. Trying to get a new Reigning Sound in place took a little bit of time too."
When Cartwright relocated to Asheville, the only Memphis-based bandmate who remained in the band was bassist Jeremy Scott, but soon even Scott didn't fit as a long-distance bandmate, necessitating Cartwright put together an entirely new band.
On one track, Cartwright took on other projects, producing records with George Soule, The Ettes, and a high-profile collaboration with former Shangri-Las singer Mary Weiss, and joining up with garage-rockers the Detroit Cobras as a playing/writing/producing auxiliary member. On the other, he began to reassemble a new Reigning Sound, first adding drummer Lance Wille, then bassist Dave Wayne Gay (of the Kentucky alt-country act Freakwater), and finally keyboard player Dave Amels, whom Cartwright met while working on the Mary Weiss record.
"Things were in flux for a while and I didn't want to go into the studio with a band that wasn't going to be the band that toured behind the material," Cartwright says about the five-year gap between Reigning Sound records.
Partly recorded in Memphis (at Ardent) and in Asheville, Love and Curses is a somewhat softer-edged record than Too Much Guitar , which was recorded primarily as a trio. The addition of Amels has brought the band closer to what it sounded like on initial albums Break Up, Break Down and Time Bomb High School , when Memphis keyboardist Alex Greene was in the group.
"It felt more complete once I had Dave [Amels]," Cartwright says of the current lineup. "Because I was kind of missing having keyboards and being able to use organ and piano. It really helps to fill things out underneath, because I'm not a real busy guitar player. I have to focus most of my energy on the vocal, so it's helpful to have someone who can play melody lines beneath me."
If Cartwright had been fortunate enough to come of age in the late '50s or early '60s, he might have been the equal of Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. As it is, he'll have to settle for being the most musically skilled, least affected, and most soulful purveyor of pre-Beatles-style rock-and-roll the world now knows — in other words, a cult artist. The new lineup probably lacks the snap of the Memphis version, but the singer and the songs are still exquisite.
Most of Love and Curses is comfort food for Reigning Sound fans, treading standard Cartwright territory: '50s/'60s pop/rock with nods to soul and Dylan/Byrds-style folk rock. And there are great new songs in this vein:
"Call Me," with its insolent delivery and surf/rockabilly riff; "The Bells," which wraps elegant wordplay in a tight little melodic package; and "Broken Things," a new Cartwright classic with Dylan organ, subtly revving garage-rock rhythm, and a slippery lyrical delivery that twists into bolder-than-usual territory ("And when humanity fails/They won't cut and run/Cause they can't even tell/When the damage is done").
But there are also a couple of unexpected detours. The stomping "Stick Up for Me" sounds like Cartwright's going topical: "Don't you think that the millions/Are getting tired of being governed by so few/They send you out to fight their war/While they stay home to control you." Except it's the album's only cover, of a garage-rock obscurity, and it's actually more than 40 years old, which I suppose is part of the point.
"A buddy of mine who lives in Detroit, Jim Shaw, turned me onto that record," Cartwright says of the song's origin. "This was from a 45 by the Glass Sun on a little Michigan record label. It's a great protest song because it doesn't mention anyone by name and doesn't focus on issues that are particular to the year 1967. It's pretty timeless. I thought it was a great garage-y sounding song. Most Sixties protest songs aren't garage, they're psych things or folkie ballads. But the dynamics of this particular song were perfect for the Reigning Sound. It was a good fit."
The album-closing "Banker and a Liar" is an original and one that references gypsy music before launching into mid-'60s Dylan imagery and delivery ("And if their money don't fulfill you/There are medicines that will do/All the thinking for you so you can relax").
"We used harmonium and this Indian string instrument — almost like a harpsichord or something," Cartwright says of the song. "Dave Gay put some standup bass behind it. It fleshed out nicely, so we put it on the record. It was one of the last things we did."
These minor departures fit, though, because ultimately the Reigning Sound is whatever Cartwright wants it to be.
"The good thing about the Reigning Sound is I think all of the fans realize at this point that I'm not going to keep making the same record over and over again," Cartwright says. "It's always going to sound like me, but they don't expect each record to sound exactly like the last one or even for the production quality to sound the same. Things change. The only thing that is a constant is me. If you like what I do, you'll probably like the next record as well." M