Greg Cartwright has a knack for writing songs that sound a lot older than they are. He’s written all sorts of songs — country weepers, R&B novelties, sentimental ballads, scatological punk kissoffs, gritty soul declarations, Stones ripoffs, bubblegum girl-group sound-alikes, an album’s worth of tunes in the style of house-wrecking ’50s and ’60s black gospel groups. He has a voice that rips like a ’60s soul shouter’s, a harried, cranky growl that escalates, in moments of great desire or desperation, into a pleading falsetto yelp. In a succession of groups going back a decade, he’s revived the Memphis of the ’50s and ’60s — not as a style, but as the promise of a place where a bunch of disparate musical hustles meet, mingle, get mangled, and become great rock and roll. If he’d been born a couple decades earlier, he might’ve gotten some of Dan Penn’s work.
As it was, he got started in the early ’90s in a bass-less two-guitar trio called the Oblivians, who are to garage punk’s current breakthrough crop roughly what the Pixies were to Nirvana. Along with groups like the Gories and Teengenerate, the Oblivians ditched garage rock’s trademark cheesy organs and bad haircuts, heaped on the grit, and inaugurated a new era of white-trash punk soul with a loud-and-cruddy æsthetic that’s influenced everyone from Jon Spencer to the White Stripes.
In the Compulsive Gamblers, Cartwright played a slightly more evolved mix of ’50s R&B, Stonesy soul, and creeped-out punk with a line-up that included not only a bassist but at times a keyboardist and a piano player. Still, he began to build up a backlog of songs that hadn’t fit with either group. On his first solo album, which is credited to Greg Oblivian and the Tip-Tops, one entire side was devoted to a noise freakout titled "Self Indulgent Asshole." But it was as if he had finally purged his system of guttural wrangling and decided to start over. On "Precious One," he evoked the style and the skeletal, ghostly atmosphere of an obscure Memphis relic: Elvis Presley’s first-ever recording, an acetate of "My Happiness" he’d cut at Sun Records for his mother’s birthday.
When Cartwright carps that diehard Oblivians fans dismiss half his catalogue because it isn’t recorded shittily enough, he’s talking mainly about his most recent group, the Reigning Sound, whose second album, Time Bomb High School (In the Red), might be his finest yet. For the first time, his songs aren’t overshadowed by the production, or the lack of it. A Tip-Tops song called "Watching My Baby Get Ready" finds the singer rejoicing in the small, forgettable details of an old routine, and that seems a good metaphor for Cartwright’s songs, which instead of breaking new ground find new room in old conventions you thought you’d heard the last of.
What’s more, Cartwright has added mid-’60s folk rock to his arsenal of old tricks. Time Bomb is almost an essay on the genre, summoning the acidic, mean-streak Dylan of "Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right" for "You’re Not As Pretty"; the jangling folk pop of the Byrds and Fairport Convention on "I Don’t Know How To Tell You," and a half-dozen mini-offshoots in between for the rest of the album. There’s even a backsliding taste of Oblivians-style garage-punk mayhem — the opening track, a reworking of the old jazz standard "Stormy Weather," is broiling street-corner doo-wop worked up into a frenzy, and "Time Bomb High School" giddily revisits the Ramones’ alma mater 25 years later. "I’m Holding Out" is a classic ’60s teenagers-holding-hands-at-the-drive-in pop confection: "Don’t ask the birds to change their song . . . it’s just what they do, just like I love you." It could be Motown fluff, but Cartwright sings it tougher and lustier, the way his idols, Nolan Strong of the Diablos and Clyde MacPhatter of the Drifters, might have.
A couple songs later, on "Dressy," he gets carried away in the kind of hallucinatory, string-enhanced swoon and flutter that Nick Drake or Skip Spence might have come up with on a hot night as describes a woman who’s caught his eye. The lyric mimics the way a small detail becomes the focus of a larger picture: as the melody cascades down the scale like a leaf over a waterfall, his gaze rolls down a long white evening gown, notes its looseness, and snags on the belt cinching her waist. Then he looks up and finds himself already in love.
The Reigning Sound play the Middle East this Tuesday, October 1. Call (617) 864-EAST.