It’s a subtler, more soulful sound for the famed garage rocker, partially prompted by the dictates of family life, but also the result of having multiple musical outlets through which to channel all the emotional vicissitudes of a career.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Two years ago, at the tail end of an interview with Greg Cartwright in the cluttered back room of a record shop in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, the revered garage rocker mentioned offhand that he’d be DJing that night at The Admiral, a stylish eatery on the other side of the French Broad river. While far from austere, the restaurant’s manicured mood lighting and well appointed comforts are leagues removed from the grimy rock clubs in which Cartwright built his reputation. Instead of sucking down cheap beers from flimsy cans and frosty bottles, the patrons sip cocktails from fancy glasses. It’s a hip scene, but also a refined one, and the songs Cartwright spun that night played right into the aesthetic.
Each lost soul and R&B gem sparkled, managing sensual grooves that were also delicate and polite, and twisting through melodies that were instantly familiar despite the fact that he played no recognizable hits. Girls in evening dresses and boys in button downs shimmied to and fro, nobody getting too handsy with their partners. Cartwright has long since mastered a touch unbridled rock ‘n’ roll aggression — as his time with the famously ragged rock outfits Compulsive Gamblers and Oblivians readily attests — but he’s equally adept at other, more tender moods.
His two most recent releases with the Reigning Sound, the 2011 small platter Abdication . . . for Your Love and the recently released Shattered (Merge), suggest that such subtle sounds might well be the best avenue for his songs — or at least the ones that he’s writing now.
Particularly on the new album, the simmering rage that flows through many of Cartwright’s enduring classics is mostly absent, replaced by songs like “Falling Rain,” where whirring organ and softly churning guitars cushion his gruff croon as he pines, “There’s something warm in the light of your eyes/ That tells me of love’s true glories/ And I hope there’s still something for me left in your heart.” Or “I’m Trying (To Be the Man You Need),” a shimmering waltz of a ‘50s ballad wherein Cartwright reaches for his warmest warble: “Can’t do right/ But you know I try/ I don’t want to make you suffer and cry.”
Once bruised and fuming, the Reigning Sound’s songs are now nuanced and mostly contrite, the work of a man who’s had a few years to realize his own failings in past relationships. More than that, it’s the sound of a man who is actually content.
“I definitely would say with this record there’s a lot less aggression than some records,” Cartwright offered a few weeks before Shattered’s July release. “In the past, I’ve done my fair share of songs where I’m trying to pin the blame on somebody for things that make me angry or unhappy. And here, there’s not a lot of that. I’m in a place in my life right now where I’m pretty happy.”
At 42, he’s the father to three children, two with his current wife. His youngest, a daughter named Ruby, recently graduated from fifth grade. His oldest, the 22-year-old Andrew, is earning his certificate to begin work as an IT professional. The middle child, Alex, will begin his senior year of high school this fall.
Cartwright’s rock life now revolves around his family life. The bulk of the Reigning Sound’s touring in support of Shattered, the band’s debut for Merge Records, had to wait until his kids’ summer vacation. Beyond his art, he’s concerned with their dreams and aspirations. Supporting them, he says, taxes his creative energy, but it also renews it.
“Once you have kids, to some degree, it’s all about them,” he says. “You want to foster their youthfulness and their desire to learn and their creativity. And to be a singer and to be a songwriter, you’re tapping something that is a limited resource. You have to almost live in this headspace where you’re still 18-years-old. On some levels, trying to help them and be a parent draws me away from it. But also, on another level, being around them keeps me young.”
Clearly, his kids give him more energy than they take away. Though Shattered is the Reigning Sound’s first proper LP since 2009’s searing and savvy Love and Curses, Cartwright has stayed busy with other projects. He teamed with The Ettes’ Lindsay “Coco” Hames to form The Parting Gifts, releasing the 2010 album Strychnine Dandelion, which tempers his surly momentum with her sharp and disarming sweetness. He reunited with the Oblivians, touring through some high-profile dates and cutting 2013’s Desperation, the band’s first album in 16 years. Both efforts, Cartwright confirms, had an impact on the Reigning Sound.
A tour with The Parting Gifts introduced him to his current band. The Jay Vons, a swaggering and soulful rock outfit from Brooklyn that features Reigning Sound keyboardist Dave Amels, joined them for a run of dates, sparking instant camaraderie. Cartwright then recruited them to record Abdication, which he completed at the behest of automotive benefactor Scion A/V. Across both of the band’s most recent efforts, the new members’ purposeful playing allows Cartwright to swing from swelling R&B to delicate folk ballads and rockers that sprint and twist with newfound crispness.
Shattered is the Reigning Sound at their most composed, but Cartwright’s reckless rock ‘n’ roll energy still holds sway. Take “My My,” a classically rendered slab of ‘60s garage rock. It’s a burst of youthful desire set to swirling organ, sleek guitars and a bass line that just won’t quit. “I’m gonna hug you, gonna kiss you,” Cartwright cries, his rumbling baritone suddenly bright and carefree, “call you my baby!” It’s as simple and joyful as any song in the Reigning Sound catalog — a direct result of time spent with the meaner Oblivians.
“That’s the kind of band that requires a little more venom,” Cartwright explains. “And so I think whatever I had, I put it into that, rather than trying to save things for the Reigning Sound. I don’t normally have that opportunity to say, ‘OK, well, I’ll put these songs in this camp and these songs in this camp.’”
His ability to muster both rage and pathos is further proof that age and fatherhood haven’t stripped him of his vigor. But Cartwright doesn’t sweat those who might doubt him. He’s so hard on himself that the grumblings of critics don’t carry much weight.
“I think that you should worry,” he says. “I think you should worry about the content. And I think that you should worry about the quality. And I think that you should worry about the pace. Because if you’re not, then you’re going to make some crap.”
Reigning Sound is currently on tour, including a stop at this weekend’s Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh (right here in BLURT’s back yard, in fact). Meanwhile, for further Cartwright commentary, read our Oblivians feature HERE. Below: watch a show filmed last month at Soda Bar in San Diego.