It’s almost impossible to believe that a band so fierce and ferocious — live and on record — could reinvent itself, and hallowed rock traditions, with such humor and talent, but Memphis’ Reigning Sound has and does. Spearheaded by formidable guitarist-singer-songwriter- producer Greg Cartwright (Oblivians, Water Daniels, ’68 Comeback, Compulsive Gamblers, Mr. Airplane Man) and kept afloat by the energetic rhythms of bassist Jeremy Scott and crotch-kicking drummer Greg Roberson, the band (with organist and guitarist Alex Greene) takes a clearheaded and self-deprecating approach to their blues jump theater: if it is earthy, deep-ended and emotional, then the song stays. Whether fast, medium or slow, these songs could be from roadside diners’ jukeboxes. They’re soundtracks for Friday rent parties, the sinless corruption of lost souls and true believers. They are exquisitely heavy.
Break Up Break Down is so muted, atmospheric and chilling — the darkness is leavened only with a rousing cover of Brian Wilson’s “Waiting for the Day” — that the album belongs more to the No Depression movement: languorous singing, piercing, minimal guitar and fine brushwork touches. “So Sad” is suicidally calm; “I’m So Thankful” is a shimmering gospelly number sending thanks to a female savior who rescues a broken man. The album is plain, emptied of flourishes, with Cartwright’s movingly hoarse vocals rejecting the drifting disasters of his life for small pockets of affirmation.
The ghosts of Buck Owens and Neil Young’s brittle middle work inhabit Time Bomb High School, bringing an eclectic and rousing repertoire. The raw and gregarious opener — “Stormy Weather,” a standard always sung by women — gets a kick in the ass by with feedback, grinding bass notes and the distinctive dynamics of a well- traveled live band. Reigning Sound respects the countrified clout of their debut (check the churning “You’re Not as Pretty”), but Greene’s organ adds graceful color, and there is more honied harmony on many of the songs. A storming cover of a great Stones rarity, “I’d Much Rather Be With Boys,” joins the killer rocker “Brown Paper Sack” and a bluesy and tender “Wait and See.” But the truly captivating aspect found for the first time on a Cartwright album is the density of the direction: this plays almost as a suite and lacks any of the haphazard or imbalanced mania that gleefully punctuates his earlier (great) work. This is a mature record by nostalgic men who have left most of their demons outside the door, at least for the duration of the recording.
Just when you think it’s OK to have the vicar over for a spot of tea, you put Too Much Guitar in the player, open the windows, turn up the knobs and suddenly all bets are off. Everything delectable and delicate has been replaced by screaming guitar-based hard rock, a minor masterpiece of hair-tingling instrumental prowess and kicked-out-the-jams singing. This album revels in its freedom. The opener, “We Repel Each Other,” announces the leaner and meaner snap and snarl. Those who missed the psycho pyrotechnics of Cartwright’s demented downstroking on the first two Reigning Sound discs are rewarded: the album screams, like rueful and angry adolescents out drinking. The burning voodoo “Your Love Is a Fine Thing” sounds like a live Yardbirds set mixed up with Jerry Lee. The band pays homage to Sam and Dave’s Memphis with a wicked cover of “You Got Me Hummin,'” an effort so dirtied and propulsive it should be banned in Boston. Just when you thought you could put the children to bed, Cartwright’s “When You Touch Me” comes on: pleading, muscular and unassailable, with a rollicking Crampsy guitar and Sonny Boy harp. A classic. Soaringly unfettered to the great tradition of southern music, the Reigning Sound is fearless and explosive.
On the quieter follow-up, Home for Orphans (a wonderful title for a set of unplugged performances and outtakes), Cartwright proudly conjures the spirits of Dylan’s Nashvillean performances on Blonde on Blonde, Doug Sahm’s solo work and Merle Haggard’s nostalgia-filled melancholia to create a stand-alone collection of superb side glances at dissipation, lost love and tantalizing defeats. Although he is not in their league as a songwriter, Cartwright balances his searching whimsy with compact guitar trills and Greene’s liquid mercury organ fills. Two lugubrious stunners maintain healthy traditions in American rock: “Carol,” a deeply felt exercise in pain and drama that fits nicely with Carol songs in the canon courtesy of Berry, Petty and Slint, and a fundamental holiday dirge, “If Christmas Can Bring You Home,” which slides inexorably into real pathos. The set is topped off by a blistering live rip through the garage classic “Don’t Send Me No Flowers (I Ain’t Dead Yet).” Dead? Hell no. Long may they reign.