by Chris Davis
Is Compulsive Gambler Greg Cartwright, aka Greg Oblivian, aka Mr. Reigning Sound, a creature of unnatural origins, expelled like a peach pit from the quivering hindquarters of Jerry Lee Lewis? Man, you listen to these records and tell me. His punk side is buttered with gospel, slathered in blues, and served up Replacements-style -- only rawer, with nods to Chuck Berry and a host of forgotten garage-rock heroes. In less extreme moments, he finds kinship with the Byrds, the Kinks, Buck Owens, and yet another host of more plaintive but equally forgotten garage-rock heroes. Here's an incomplete but representative discography -- a Top 10 list if you will -- of Cartwright's recordings with the Compulsive Gamblers, the Oblivians, the Tip-Tops, and the Reigning Sound:
1. Oblivians Play Nine Songs with Mr. Quintron -- The Oblivians (Crypt, 1997): This is Cartwright and fellow Oblivians Jack Yarber and Eric Friedl at the absolute top of their game. Raw blues, punk fury, and mid-century pop balladry are wrapped up tighter than a dollar-fiddy joint in the squall of Mr. Quintron's gospel-drenched organ. "How Long" sounds like an outtake from Tom Waits' opera The Black Rider that got cut because it was too freaking scary. But Cartwright's haunting interpretation of "Live the Life" steals this show. It's a perfect cut on a record that is nearly perfect, in spite of itself.
2. Break Up Break Down -- The Reigning Sound (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001): In terms of sheer fun, the Reigning Sound's sophomore recording, Time Bomb High School, may be the better record, but I've got to rank this Byrds-inspired beauty at number two on both the strength of the songwriting and the shock value. I mean, c'mon, who would have ever expected something so beautifully mellow from the madman who once screamed "I'm not a sicko/There's a plate in my head"? A beautiful recording where grievous country-drenched heartache mixes with the wide-eyed innocence of a Jonathan Richman love song.
3. Time Bomb High School -- The Reigning Sound (In the Red, 2002): Front to back this may be Cartwright and (present) company's most accomplished recording, but in spite of its sprawling guitar licks and driving organ, it's never quite as joyous, or as lonesome, as Break Up Break Down. From the supercharged sock-hop rhythms of "Stormy Weather" to the Lou Reed-meets-Velvet Crush grandeur of "She's Bored with You" and "Reptile Style," Time Bomb High School is almost too sophisticated to be called a garage rave-up. But you gotta call it something.
4. Crystal Gazing Luck Amazing -- The Compulsive Gamblers (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2000): Forget the Strokes, White Stripes, and Hives for just a minute. This record should have kick-started the garage-rock boom. In terms of energy, it's the closest the Compulsive Gamblers ever came to aping the Oblivians. But the ferocity is tempered by heavy doses of mid-century pop and a dollop of plaintive country and western. Choice line: "Call Dr. Nichopoulos!"
5. Popular Favorites -- The Oblivians (Crypt, 1996): A great party record. Well, if pounding Pabst and jumping up and down is your idea of a party. Jack Yarber's "The Leather," a raunchy ode to good old cow skin, may be the centerpiece of this disc, but that takes nothing away from Cartwright's hysterical meta-rocker "Guitar Shop Asshole."
6. Headshop -- Greg Oblivian and the Tip-Tops (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1998): This unsung solo effort is a lo-fi masterpiece in the spirit of Break Up Break Down. The beautiful, impossibly earnest balladry of "Oh My Precious One" makes it hard to get beyond the second track. "Amazing Grace" never sounded so sweet.
7. Bluff City -- The Compulsive Gamblers (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1999): A record for all those kids who loved Saturday afternoon horror movies, who remember when comic books had ads in them, and who liked the ads more than the comics. Fun, fun, fun.
8. Best of the Worst -- The Oblivians (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1999): This 25-song package catches the Oblivians at their silliest and most charismatic. Essential if only for the Johnny Thundersesque "Pill Popper Blues Parts 1 & 2."
9. Gambling Days Are Over -- The Compulsive Gamblers (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1995): A little Link Wray, a little Tom Waits, and a dash of the Sonics. This record features the original Gamblers lineup, including such notable ex-Memphians as former NTJ texture man Greg Easterly and Linda Heck & the Trainwreck's sax blower Jimmy Enk. It also features the Gamblers' anthem "Sour and Vicious Man." Liner notes include a quote from Shangri-La founder Sherman Wilmott saying, "Nobody ever went broke selling alcohol in Memphis." Amen, Sherm. A-freakin'-men.
10. Soul Food -- The Oblivians (Crypt, 1995): Just as the title implies, this disc is best enjoyed with a head full of malt liquor and a belly full of fried chicken. Most Memphis moment: An ode to once-ubiquitous Memphis scenester Jim Cole (who has "so much soul" it's upsetting) made ol' JC the hippest librarian in town.
Also of note: The Oblivians' Sympathy Sessions (if only for the hot cover shot of starlet D'Lana Tunnel); Wild Zero's, a raucous soundtrack for a Japanese action flick featuring a handful of Cartwright's solo recordings; Jack [Yarber] Oblivian's So Low (think the New York Dolls too messed up to play but determined to do it anyway); Jack Oblivian's American Slang (think the same); the Oblivians' 17 Cumshots, a Dutch bootleg with lots of dirty pictures on the cover; and The Deadly Snakes' I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore, where Cartwright joins Toronto's answer to the Compulsive Gamblers as both producer and guitar player.