I consider it proof of a beneficent deity that there are
three versions of the Reigning Sound’s “We Repel (Each Other)” out in the
world. Borrowing from seemingly every corner of Memphis music history (the band
is originally from Memphis but now based in Asheville, NC), the song flays at
raw emotions and romantic recriminations, all of which are shaded slightly
differently on one studio version and the two live takes. It first appeared on
the band’s barreling, barely controlled 2004 LP Too Much Guitar!, and since then it’s been included on both of the
group’s live albums, Live at Maxwell’s from 2005 and the new-ish Live at Goner Records
6.26.05. That last one may be the best version yet, the angriest-sounding
and most intense. As Greg Cartwright spits the chorus like venom-“We repel!
Repel! Repel! Each other!”-the nervous momentum and jittery guitar threaten to
explode the small storefront space. Not simply a killer tune, “We Repel” is a
lynchpin on Live at Goner Records:
It’s sequenced late in the setlist, but represents a change in attack that sets
up a killer finale and makes the album more than simply a fans-only souvenir.
A sort of homecoming for Cartwright, who used to own the
store under a different name, Live at
Goner Records was originally released on vinyl back in 2005 and is just now
making its bow on CD, and the new format is no great improvement on the old.
Cartwright, who is as much a historian and connoisseur as Peter Guralnick, is
hopelessly devoted to the styles of the ‘60s, but not necessarily the sounds.
He knows the history extensively and fluently speaks the language of the
decade’s soul, r&b, rock, and country, but he never comes across as a
gearhead strictly adhering to the recording techniques of the era. As a result,
the Reigning Sound’s studio albums are best when they sound rawest; conversely,
Live at Goner Records surpasses Live at Maxwell’s because the cleaner
sound makes the performance more streamlined, laser-targeted, and almost
cruelly intense. The only drawback is the lack of crowd noise: As the photo in
the inner sleeve implies, the band went wild while the audience remained only
indie-interested-arms crossed, toes tapped.
What starts as a simple in-store, however, becomes a
showcase for Cartwright’s eloquently wounded vocals and smart songwriting as
well as for the now-trio’s leaner, meaner sound. Opener “Time Bomb High School” nearly
explodes in a burst of guitar and tambourine, and the set doesn’t really let up
until they cover Carl Perkins’ “Tennessee” six tracks in. “Reptile Style”
ratchets up the tension of the original as Cartwright flays that riff like a
fish, and his soulful sandpaper vocals give “What Else Could I Do” and “Two
Thieves” their heartbreak stroll. And “Tennessee” isn’t bad necessarily, but it
has the unenviable tracklist position right after their cover of Sam the Sham’s
“Black Sheep”, which draws a class narrative and an insistent hook from the
nursery rhyme. It could be silly, but the trio find the song’s dark heart.
There are some gaffes in the show: Cartwright flubs the
ending to the Swinging Yo-Yos’ “Do Something” and abruptly cuts off the rueful
country-rock shuffle “Two Thieves” with a startling announcement: “I got to
stop. I’m getting electrocuted like hell,” Cartwright declares. “And with that
we’ll change moods.” Then comes the ferocious version of “We Repel”, which
ushers in the darkly seductive “I’m So Thankful”. But they’re just building up
to the final tracks, the desperate “I’m Holding Out” and closer “Drowning”. The
latter, with its plummeting guitar riff and narrative lyrics, is perhaps the
Reigning Sound’s best song, a tense meditation on the Mississippi River’s
strong undertow as a metaphor for drowning in heartache. Ironically, as
Cartwright closes the song and the set singing “Save me! Save me!” the Reigning
Sound seem more fiercely and undeniably alive than ever.
Stand-out Tracks: “We Repel (Each Other),” “Black Sheep,” “Drowning” STEPHEN M. DEUSNER