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Greg Cartwright wrote a good chunk of the songbook for the '90s Memphis revival. With both the Compulsive Gamblers and the Oblivians, the frontman's take on rock 'n' roll, soul, and punk music made for a gutsy sound propelled by his expressive, raspy vocals; he also sat in with the Detroit Cobras, the Deadly Snakes, and '68 Comeback, honing an impressively garage-rock-drenched résumé.
But eventually he broke out of the garage, moving from Memphis to Asheville, North Carolina, five years ago and founding Reigning Sound, who, in 2002, blasted off with Break Up, Break Down, quickly followed with Time Bomb High School, and redefined the r&b/punk crossover with 2004's fuzzed-out Too Much Guitar. He wrote nine songs for Shangri-Las queen Mary Weiss's Dangerous Game and recorded with Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn. But the latest Reigning Sound record might be his most refined and important release yet.
Love and Curses finds the quartet embracing a comfortable maturity: far from boring, but more in touch with their Sam Cooke side than their Angry Samoans side. Dave Amels's organ expands the sound, while Cartwright's lyrics take a more introspective tack. "One thing that is a constant for me is I really identify with pain," he explains over the phone from his Asheville abode. "I'm really good at emoting pain, and this is a common denominator that people can identify with. There's a little bit of joy now as well, though. And maybe now I share a little bit of the pain, or even take a bit of blame for it." His perspective is bound to change, of course, now that he has three children—18, 12, and 6—to contend with. "Not only am I an adult, but so is everyone else in the band."
Moreover, a string of reunion gigs with his other bands has only solidified Cartwright's loyalty to this one. "There was a chemistry and a dynamic with the three people," he recalls of recent Oblivians shows. "I convincingly sung it, but I can't feel the songs anew—I can't write that vitriol and bitterness again." Nor would he be able to stew in that vitriol for long even if he could. Family commitments severely curtail the Reigning Sound's touring nowadays, which only makes the few shows they do play out of town more important. "You pull it back a bit, so that time spent out there means more to you, and you're not as drained," he explains. "Which means you can deliver a lot more when you're out and at a show." With Cartwright onstage, deliverance is guaranteed.