On September 10, 2001, a few months before they made the transition from underground sensation to full-fledged rock stars, Detroit's White Stripes played at Earnestine & Hazel's downtown. Mid-set, singer Jack White, who recorded the Stripes' recent album White Blood Cells locally at Easley-McCain Studios, stopped to acknowledge the great debt his band owed the Memphis music scene. But unlike most tributes to Memphis music, he wasn't talking about the bygone days of Sun and Stax and old Beale Street blues. In fact, many of the people White was paying homage to were in the audience, and one of them, Greg Cartwright (aka Greg Oblivian), had even helped book the show.
The band Cartwright founded seven years earlier with Jack Yarber and Eric Freidl, the Oblivians, might now be seen as the Meat Puppets to the Nirvana of MTV stars the White Stripes and the Hives. The Oblivians breathed new life into garage rock and influenced dozens of bands along the way, some of which are currently enjoying the commercial success that eluded the Oblivians during their chaotic mid-'90s run. You'd think that would be good news for Cartwright. The problem is his music doesn't sound like that anymore. Cartwright's current band, the Reigning Sound, have traded some of that raw, unfocused energy for a higher level of sonic craftsmanship, which is a fancy way of saying now you can actually hear all the instruments and there's a bass in the band.
Filling out the band are Greg Roberson, a seasoned rocker who played drums for the rockabilly/punk Beat Cowboys back in the days of the Antenna club, New Jersey-bred bass player Jeremy Scott, an old friend of Roberson's who cut his teeth playing power pop and whose emphasis on vocal harmony has provided a challenge to Cartwright (a noted throat-shredder), and Alex Greene, a veteran of such seminal Memphis bands as Panther Burns and Big Ass Truck, on organ, guitar, and backing vocals.
Swedish garage rockers and current critical darlings the Hives were one of the bands that loved the Oblivians. When they came to the United States to headline a tour, they asked the Reigning Sound to open for them. So the group accompanied the well-dressed Swedes for six dates on the West Coast earlier this summer. "They offered us the whole tour, but we've all got jobs," Cartwright says from his fledgling record store, Legba Records. "The shows went great. The majority of these 800- to 1,000-seat crowds were, like, 17- to 18-year-olds, and they'd only heard the Strokes or the White Stripes. So at a lot of the shows, we'd come out -- and we don't have any kind of schtick ... we're all just wearing our street clothes, playing rock-and-roll -- and there's this weird thing at the beginning where the crowd is like 'I kinda like this, but nobody told me I could like it.' Pretty soon, they're all moving around and liking it. They're all cheering -- well, they're not all cheering. A good portion of them are cheering. Some of them are still like 'Get off the stage! I don't know who you are!'"
Cartwright's new day job is running Legba, which recently opened near the intersection of Cooper and Young, adjacent to Melange restaurant. Cartwright hopes the store, named for the voodoo gatekeeper spirit who brought the knowledge of the gods to humanity, will help expose young audiences to good music. Cartwright laments the passing of the days when you could take a chance on a band by paying 50 cents or a dollar for their single or when DJs could play a band on the radio just because they loved the music. Today, CDs cost $20 and DJs play songs on corporate-dictated playlists. "I believe if you expose people to good music, they'll [like it]," Cartwright insists. "You have to get them while they're young and say, Here, listen to this. It doesn't look very hip, but listen to it." To that end, Cartwright will keep the selection of used vinyl and CDs at Legba diverse and the prices reasonable. And he will try to stock music different from Shangri-La and Last Chance Records, the two established independent record stores in Midtown. (Legba grew out of a failed attempt by Cartwright to buy Last Chance a few months back.)
"I think Memphis is big enough for [all three] stores," Cartwright says. "Last Chance has a huge selection of jazz and hip hop. I'm thinking that I'm not even going to try to compete with that. I'm going to stick with what I know, which is rock and country and blues and R&B, and I think those stores are going to continue to do the business they do now. It's very rare to find a lot of something at one store and also at another."
On July 19th, the two aspects of Cartwright's musical career will come together when Legba hosts a party that will serve both as its grand opening and record release for the Reigning Sound's second album, Time Bomb High School. Their first album, Break Up Break Down, was quite a departure from the barely controlled anarchy of the Oblivians. "I had all these slow songs that I had been kicking around for a while, but I had no outlet for them," Cartwright says. "The Oblivians couldn't do that kind of stuff. Every decent songwriter writes more than one kind of song, so when I started the Reigning Sound, I thought the first thing I would do was clean house and get all this material down to record."
The good reviews Break Up Break Down garnered were a surprise to Cartwright. "When we did it, I was really happy with it. But, afterwards, I thought, Well, maybe that was a bad idea, to put so many slow songs on one record. I always like a record that's dynamic, like a roller-coaster ride, with slow songs and fast songs and mid-tempo rockers. It should be a real mixed bag. So with this record, that's what I tried to do."
Time Bomb High School is a roller coaster. With 15 songs, it alternates between Break Up Break Down-style chilled-out forays into country like "You're Not As Pretty," garage-rock hand grenades like the title track, and anomalies like the 6/8 time "I'm Holding Out For You," its chord structure resembling nothing so much as doo wop. One thing the songs have in common is brevity -- only two songs break the three-minute barrier, and they inevitably hit the chorus almost as soon as they begin. Either Cartwright has achieved a new level of lyrical sophistication or it's just possible to hear what he's singing now. The songs are heavy with multiple meanings. "Reptile Style" could be about a busted relationship or getting screwed by a record deal ("There's two of us in here/But only one of us is having any fun"). The moody "I Walk By Your House" could be about pining for a lost love or a love affair with rock-and-roll that has yet to abate ("I thought it would be so easy to grow up and forget you/I was just 19/Now I'm 32"). The truth is they probably are meant to be understood in many ways.
With a move to California indie label In the Red and the commercial resurgence of guitar-driven garage rock, Cartwright has high hopes for the new album. "But even if it doesn't garner any more attention than the last record, I'll still be happy," he says. "At this point, even if music never turns out to be so successful for me, it makes me happy just to have the opportunity to make records, to keep writing stuff and recording stuff and playing with good people. And if it never takes off, that's okay, because I can keep doing it for as long as I want. It's a good life for me right now." With that, Cartwright laughs and knocks on Legba Records' wooden countertop. "The minute I say that -- colon cancer."
Reigning Sound record-release party/
Legba Records grand opening
2152 Young Avenue
Friday, July 19th