Foggy Notion: Shattered, Reigning Sound

Reigning Sound (Greg Cartwright centre)

Shattered, REIGNING SOUND (Merge) Memphis-reared singer-songwriter, musician and producer Greg Cartwright honed his skills, delving into the wide array of musical influences buzzing around him, situated in a unique Southern apex of country, rockabilly, rock n’ roll, blues, R&B, pop and, of course, soul. After a stint in Tav Falco’s “academy” of revolving Panther Burns, the frontman of Reigning Sound cut his teeth in Memphis’ modest, yet thriving, ‘90s garage underground, with The Compulsive Gamblers, The Tip Tops and The Oblivians, often in collaboration with Memphis figure Jack Yarber.

Cartwright’s early songs displayed a knack for clever phrasing centered on yearning and heartbreak, and drawing from musical influences, often from his own backyard, that ranged from Charlie Rich’s country-soul, Johnny Burnette’s hell-bent stomp, Rufus Thomas’ powerful holler, Alex Chilton’s gift for melodic pop hooks, Charlie Feathers’ loose, eccentric energy, and the raw garage of The Sonics.

Surfacing in 2001, Reigning Sound exerted a soulful garage-pop direction, as evidenced in their debut, Break Up, Break Down. Though Cartwright was the group’s central figure, the original line-up, featuring bassist Jeremy Scott, drummer Greg Roberson and guitarist-organist Alex Greene, formed a powerful core sound, hitting their pinnacle with the following Time Bomb High School, in 2002. However, there was a shift of dynamics after 2004’s Too Much Guitar, the final recording made, one could argue, as a band.

Shortly thereafter, Cartwright stepped away from being a leader, joining The Detroit Cobras on guitar, vocals and production assistance for a string of recordings, from 2004 until 2007. He produced the Boston duo Mr. Airplane Man (2004’s C’mon DJ) and The Ettes (2009’s Do You Want Power), while collaborating with, producing and accompanying Shangri-La vocalist Mary Weiss (2007’s Dangerous Game), and joining The Ettes’ Coco Hames for a collaborative project, The Party Gifts (2010’s excellent Strychnine Dandelion). The Party Gifts’ organist Dave Amels would become the sole consistent presence in the latter-to-present period of Reigning Sound. In retrospect, Strychnine Dandelion would also represent a rough blueprint to the band’s new release, Shattered, with Amels’ organ presence playing a underlying, yet key, role throughout.

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After a number of line-up changes, Reigning Sound’s current configuration, featuring bassist Benny Trokan, guitarist Mike Catanese, drummer Mikey Post and Amels, who were also bandmates in the Brooklyn soul group The Jay Vons, were first featured collectively on the 2011 EP, Abdication…For Your Love. For Shattered, they provide a tight, economic version of Break Up, Break Down‘s soul-rooted swing, allowing Cartwright’s well-aged vocals to resonate. In a sense, Cartwright’s approach to his arrangements and production bears a soulful sway, groove, much like Booker T & The MG’s accompaniment on scores of legendary Stax sessions.

So it’s not a stretch to point out that Shattered is a Greg Cartwright solo album – and, a great one at that. Recorded at Brooklyn’s Daptone Recording Studios, Cartwright’s production captures a clean, uncluttered, yet warm, sound. It allows the listener to hear the songwriter’s maturity and growth, with his eclectic palette.

The pop gem of “Never Coming Home” is unashamed of its early ‘60s British pop influences (most notably Andrew Loog Oldham) and comes as a sonic surprise from Cartwright, only to reminded by his superb lyrics and phrasing. “But I couldn’t see past you, I was waiting for your call,” he sings, “when the clock out in the hall struck 1, and then 2.” In the tradition of the UK heyday of Fabienne Delsol or Holly Golightly, “You Did Wrong” bounces with an upbeat, ‘60s French-flavored garage-pop. The elegant “Once More,” with a subtle use of strings, comes from folk-based pop that Johnny Rivers once delivered or the present-day Nick Lowe for its relaxed sophistication. Amels shimmering organ provides a solid foundation for “Starting New,” a ballad that successfully merges soul and country, in the tradition of a smooth Spooner Oldham-Dan Penn composition.

Shattered is a subtle classic. There are no dramatic changes or turns for Reigning Sound admirers; it’s a culmination of what he does best – executing unadorned, tight songs that contain a sense of timelessness. All I might request from Cartwright is to have him come out from behind the curtain of Reigning Sound. That, and bestow one of contemporary garage’s gifted songwriter, established voice and major contributor the type of recognition and attention that is long overdue. Perhaps Shattered could help achieve just that.