What they need

I’m still walking the ragged trail of breadcrumbs left by Reigning Sound kingpin Greg Cartwright, playing catch up: I only recently learned the man relocated to Asheville last year.

It was also last year that cerebral UK rock mag Mojo, while allotting other new albums a mere fingernail of space, gave red-carpet treatment to Reigning Sound’s then-new disc, Too Much Guitar (In The Red Records) — full picture, a horde of words and lavish praise from salivating critic Stevie Chick.

A couple months later, I noticed my friend had a copy, and I asked him if he liked it.

“Hell yeah,” he said, with the starry stare I would come to associate with Cartwright fans. “Can you believe he’s now a local?”

Local? But there was no fanfare associated with a big-time rocker like Cartwright moving to town. I learned of his local live shows through word-of-mouth. His Web site lacked any relatively new information, and persistent e-mails for an interview were never answered. One live performance at Mo’Jazz serves as my only personal testament to his existence.

It wasn’t till I came across an article by Fred Mills that I began to understand the quasi-phantom known as Greg Cartwright.

Comfortably numb

“The thing about my records is that they are good records that have by and large gone unnoticed by the mass populace, so I haven’t had to deal with a lot of attention,” Cartwright told Mills. “That keeps things right where I like it: I sell enough records so that whoever puts my record out will let me do whatever I want, but not so much attention that a major label would sign me to a contract where I have to do what they want me to do — I’m right where I want to be, and it makes me really comfortable.”

You could call Greg a fixture, though he recently transplanted with his family from hometown Memphis. He’s a no-nonsense rocker who fits well into the laidback chic of the Asheville music scene — yet his garage-rock minimalism is a meaty middle finger to the hip.

Cartwright’s imprint is everywhere. His willingness to promote music stems from sheer love for the craft. He once learned drums on a two-month tour for Jeffrey Evans’ ’68 Comeback because the band was drummerless and he liked them. He’s produced or performed on albums by the Porch Ghouls, Mr. Airplane Man, the Cuts, Deadly Snakes, and the Detroit Cobras, whom Reigning Sound will tour with starting in October. Sadly, Asheville is being skipped on that juncture.

His name is whispered in reverence by Jack White, Steven Van Zandt (Springsteen, The Sopranos) and Swedish quintet the Hives, with whom Reigning Sound has toured twice. (In the December 12, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone, Hives lead singer Pelle Almqvist was asked to pick his favorite album of the year. Said Pelle: “Lemme pick two. Reigning Sound’s Time Bomb High School and the Hellacopters’ By the Grace of God. I don’t want to analyze why I like them, or try to validate them. If I think it’s swinging, it’s swinging.”)

Musically, Greg can swing — or smash you right in the face. Cartwright first (dis)assembled his reputation with the Compulsive Gamblers in the early ’90s before mutating into the two guitar/drums attack of the Oblivians. Tongue-in-cheek to the point of tasting blood, their music is best described as “f••k-off rock” (tracks included such heart-tuggers as “And Then I F••ked Her”). Fans of the band still talk about the band with wide-eyed wistfulness, and some diehards still refer to Cartwright as Greg Oblivian.

Sympathy for the unsuspecting consumer

Reigning Sound appeared a few years after Greg and the Oblivians parted ways. Going in an opposite direction from his former band, Cartwright delved into more R&B and folk-ish material, picking up songs deemed too melancholy for the Oblivians. The result was 2001’s Break Up, Break Down (Sympathy for the Record Industry), an album full of squandered loves and even a Brian Wilson cover, “Waiting for the Day.” Oblivians fans were stunned.

“The people that liked the Oblivians, with the first Reigning Sound album, they really hated it!” Cartwright told Mills. “But you should never give people what they want — give ’em what they need. And they needed to go out and spend eight dollars and hate it, and then two months down the road realize they like it.”

It got even poppier with Time Bomb High School (In The Red), but in that scruffy sort of way. Critics went nuts, drawing comparisons to Van Morrison’s Them period, early Stones, Roy Orbison, and the Yardbirds.

Next came the sonic squalor of Too Much Guitar, which hearkened back to Oblivian. Raunchy and loud — Greg’s voice is barely audible over the chaos — Guitar was recorded at Cartwright’s old Memphis store, Legba Records. Heartbreak was still the central theme, but Greg took his R&B zeal, gave it a raunchy jolt, and then put its face lovingly in the mud.

It was seemingly a volatile time for Cartwright — the move to Asheville was in the works, and keyboardist/guitarist Alex Greene left in 2003. Drummer Greg Roberson called it quits once Cartwright moved in mid-2004, and was replaced by Asheville-based drummer Lance Wille (Unholy Trio). Cartwright was once again starting from scratch, but the respect he carried with him buoyed his re-formatted band. The newly released Live at Maxwell’s (Goner Records) has that primal energy not usually found in a family man. It also bodes well for the future, even if big success is taboo.

However, Cartwright’s strength is that he never rests on his laurels. And he expects the same of his fans.

“Part of what I always try to do is make each record individual to the one before,” he told Mills. “It keeps me on my toes — keeps me interested. Also, it’s your job as an artist and musician to test the limits of what people think they will like.”

Dangling the carrot is a Greg Cartwright specialty — whether to fans, or to a journalist who just wants a quote or two.

[Hunter Pope, who writes “Earful” in Xpress every week, is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

The Reigning Sound play Broadway’s (107 N. Lexington Ave.) with the Makeout Room on Friday, Aug. 26. 10 p.m. $5. Call 285-0400 for time and cover.

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