A Different Kind of Summer Song

Gaze wistfully into the past, and hopefully into the future with Reigning Sound’s Shattered.  

Greg Cartwright
Greg Cartwright, Reigning Sound’s songwriter and only consistent member.

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford

All week, day and night, sunshine and rain, I have been replaying the veteran, underappreciated garage-rock band Reigning Sound’s first album in five years, Shattered, with my feelings padding around it like a jungle cat in a zoo enclosure, circling one question again and again: Why does Greg Cartwright’s voice so arrest me in my steps and wind its way to my nerves, to the heart of who I at least speculate I am? What divides him from a hundred other gifted, retro-minded, white-boy belters?

It’s not a virtuosic voice, but not a narrow or sloppy one either. With the buoyant southern R&B of opener “North Cackalacky Girl” (bonus points for seizing the musical potential of that castanet-like sobriquet for his adopted state as only Tribe Called Quest has done before), he stirs in a little Bakersfield twang, a lot of rockabilly flirt, but a touch of the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, too.

Cartwright, Reigning Sound’s songwriter and only consistent member, can summon up the country-soul of Sam Cooke, William Bell, James Carr, and pretty much anyone who ever sang “Dark End of the Street.” He’s a part of the continuing sagas of power-pop and swamp-punk via fellow Memphis native Alex Chilton (Box Tops, Big Star) and Chilton acolytes the Cramps and the Replacements. And his tones have marinated in the spray of numberless beat groups and garage freaks from the 1960s and beyond, most noticeably on this album Them-era Van Morrison (as on “My My”), along with dozens more that few of us mere civilians would know.

Still, there’s more to it than the sum of Cartwright’s listening, deep as it famously is among the small circles where Cartwright is remotely famous. His throat bears the accumulated scrapes and scratches of having played and screeched in the much filthier Memphis punk band the Oblivians throughout the 1990s—a group that heralded and fostered the garage wave that would crest with the White Stripes, Black Keys, and others, but spurned the mainstreaming courtship of major labels.

And with that comes a charged weariness, that of a 42-year-old man who doesn’t want to scream out his desires anymore, but yearns to come out and tell them plain, for all the good that might or mightn’t do.

Cartwright doesn’t rank with the great rock lyricists, but he raids the old tropes and catchphrases for precisely what he requires and matches them to grounded details of experience. After many pacing, courage-gathering measures of guitar, drums, and organ on Shattered’s fourth track, you can see him shaking his head as he sings, “I understand if you’ve gotta leave,” raising a hand half to his lover, half towards his own wincing eyes. “You can’t tell people how to grieve.” The whole beat-up movie washes across my living-room floor and walls and I can’t move until it ends.

Even on a much more optimistic song like the lovely, lilting, “Just Like Starting New,” Cartwright sings with an almost ruthless balance of passion and resignation—he’s always making proposals for how things ought to be, but they’re forever somewhat out of his hands: “It’s been a while since I had a dream/ I don’t pretend to know what they mean/ But lately I’ve been dreaming just of you/ And if you offer your assistance/ I’m gonna put up no resistance.”

Perhaps it’s a fatalism he’s inherited from soul’s gospel roots, but it seems more like an adult understanding of the reality of other minds: You can’t tell people who to love, how to grieve, when to come or when to leave. His unseen loves and friends all have presence, and that invokes a world. A morality, too, if that’s not too grand to say.

Stylized as Cartwright’s music is, he never seems to be angling for the approval of other collectors and connoisseurs with cute quotations and tributes. Likewise, he never amplifies his accent—it’s regional but not fetishized, which keeps it conversational and convincing. His distance from the pop marketplace is apparent: He isn’t playing to a party crowd, recalcitrant punks, or mature NPR-listening couples wistful for their rocking days, nor to any other scale of contemporary relevance. Neither is he righteously shoving all that away. I’m not saying he’s more truthful than other singers, just that I can’t catch him in whatever games might be at play.

Shattered is Reigning Sound’s sixth studio album since 2001 but its first for North Cackalacky label Merge, best known these days as the home of Arcade Fire but mostly, as it holds its 25th-anniversary festival next week, a supportive shelter for many of the greatest independent musicians in the country, well-known or not (Mountain Goats, Richard Buckner, Bob Mould, Destroyer, label founders Superchunk), as they reach middle age. Compared to the punk labels he’s been on before, Merge has real reach, so Shattered may be the first Reigning Sound album a lot of people ever hear.

Coincidentally or not, it’s also softer-sounding overall, for a band that once titled an album Too Much Guitar. Cartwright is backed up by a new band, Brooklyn’s the Jay Vons, and recorded at revivalist HQ the Daptone House of Soul. The overall effect is way less Oblivians, way more Stax, especially with Dave Amels’s classic Booker T. Hammond tones up front. Disappointed fans might nickname it Too Less Guitar.

But my favorite Reigning Sound record before now was Time Bomb High School, less for its out-of-breath Ramonesy title track than for its cover of “Stormy Weather” and above all the distraught “I Walk by Your House,” about a love affair from which the singer can’t disentangle himself a dozen years past its end. He walks by her house, she’s not home, and his raggedy harangue about doubt and underachievement is stared down by the trilling organ’s pitiless, unending, self-certainty.

So personally on Shattered I’m getting more of what I bargain for. In fact, in a season where the pop-chart toppers have been a letdown, I might go ahead and make it my prime summer spin. I’m a little abashed about yielding to something so backward-looking musically, but sometimes that ease of familiarity clears the way for another kind of encounter, with songs that nudge, “Do you know what this is like? Can you remember being here before?”

Summer isn’t only a time of freshness and fun, but a season of return—this heat, that landscape, this iced drink, that road sign, this wish for redemption, that lakeside, this heat. Greg Cartwright’s voice is the years tumbling past while you try to play goalkeeper, all about wanting to get it right next time but getting it pretty much the same. It’s the shatter but it’s also the shimmer, and the shimmy, and the shake.