On their 1995 album Soul Food, which sounds like it was recorded in a deep fryer, Greg Cartwright’s old band the Oblivians released a song with an n-bomb in its title. The Oblivians were Memphis garage-punk kingpins, and Soul Food sums up their scene: white edgelords aping the boundary-pushing rebelliousness of Little Richard and Ike Turner without considering the racist conditions that gave early rock’n’roll its sense of desperation. So what’s a garage rocker to do when he outgrows the need to push people’s buttons? With Reigning Sound, Cartwright has spent the years focusing on craft instead of provocation: slowing down and fashioning songs that tend to sound like well-chosen covers of obscure garage, soul, and girl-group gems.
On the warm, thoughtfully arranged new album A Little More Time With Reigning Sound, Cartwright reunites with Jeremy Scott, Greg Roberson, and Alex Greene—Reigning Sound’s “Memphis lineup,” which helped jumpstart the band’s growth by layering singer-songwriter wistfulness into Cartwright’s customarily hectic garage rock on 2005’s Home for Orphans. In the decade and a half after that album, Cartwright worked in different studios with a fluctuating lineup. In 2011, Abdication… For Your Love was produced in part by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and Reigning Sound’s most recent album, 2014’s Shattered, was recorded at the Daptone studios. Like Reigning Sound’s best work, the Daptone/Auerbach assembly line traffics in a kind of amalgamated American music, and the results should have been a match made in cool-dad heaven, but on those albums, Cartwright’s typically clever songs and heartfelt voice were lost in the overwrought production.
A Little More Time is a culmination of a long process of maturation. The seasoned songwriter brings his well-honed gifts back home to Memphis, gathers old friends, and records on 8-track, making a record that feels more like a band standing close together in a room than a guy renting time in a studio with Serious American Music presets on the gear. As on Home for Orphans, the ruminative, slower songs are the ones that really shine, living in the sweet spot between pomade-slick rock’n’roll, festive ’60s soul, and glowing country gold. Cartwright wrote a lot of this album at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown last year, and the songs feel made for staring out the window while cigarette smoke twists into your coffee’s steam. On single “Oh Christine,” Cartwright ditches the wounded Foghorn Leghorn howl that blew through the band’s early albums for a warbly ’70s Dylan croon. A lyrical, Muscle Shoals-style guitar lead guides the band through the verse and pre-chorus before laying down the hook on a bed of keys. Other highlights include the swirling strings and organ that buoy “I’ll Be Your Man,” and the constant build and swell of “Just Say When,” a duet with Cartwright’s old Parting Gifts bandmate Coco Hames.
At its beginning, A Little More Time feels like one of those “back to our roots” attempts that bands make when they’re out of ideas and energy. The opening is a cheeky boogie called “Let’s Do It Again” that winks more than it rocks. Before the title track’s intricate vocal melody kicks in, the juicy organ of the intro echoes a version of “Stop and Think It Over” that Reigning Sound recorded with former Shangri-La’s singer Mary Weiss. The handclaps on the searing cover of Adam Faith’s “I Don’t Need That Kind of Lovin’” call back to the band’s 2002 cover of “Stormy Weather.” Luckily, the rest of the record is an achievement in craftsmanship, featuring some of Reigning Sound’s most layered songs yet. The pastiche of classic American sounds is still present, but Scott Bomar’s production gives the music an unstudied, authentic feel. Keys swell under choruses, strings drop in but don’t overstay their welcome, and Cartwright’s quieter croon has even more…