Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Reigning Sound. Time Bomb High School (In The Red, 2002)

"It's a well-known drag, but it brings me down."

Hailing from North Carolina by way of Memphis, down 'n' dirty garage blasters the Reigning Sound specialize in a soul and vintage rock-inflected racket coated in fuzzy, buzzy chords and punk-timed tempos. Like the Ramones and countless other wild-eyed pop historians, this southern-fried quartet looks backward for inspiration, mining the classic sounds of the '50s and '60s for nuggets of melody and attitude, taking cues from the rougher edges of an antique approach and infusing what's old with a thrillingly up-to-date feel. The key to the Reigning Sound's success is their lack of piss-taking or posturing, never resorting to buffoonish genre-aping or rockabilly play acting. There's nothing goofy about these cats' game, just helping after helping of soulfully ragged rock.

Time Bomb High School (a title seeming to deftly merge the Ramones and Rancid) is the Reigning Sound's second LP, a sterling collection of joyously raucous originals and a handful of well-considered and re-engineered covers. Throughout the album's 15 songs and 37+ minutes, lead singer/guitarist Greg Cartwight, guitarist/organist/singer Alex Greene, bassist/singer Jeremy Scott, and drummer Greg Roberson wail away with bruising precision, roaring through the numbers with an excitement that bleeds through the speakers in waves. Power chords and kick-drum flurries push the tunes through their paces, as Cartwright -- channeling the Small Faces' mighty Steve Marriott -- delivers his vocals in a fearsome, gravel-encrusted croon that elevates the whole endeavor to the realm of the kick-ass. In the immortal words of MG Duck Dunn, it's a sound powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.

Dusty standard "Stormy Weather" kicks things off in fine style, given a reverent treatment by the boys, retaining an aching vulnerability and sweet sentimentality underneath its tattered denim and torn leather. Other interpretations include the biting, taunting "Brown Paper Sack," with its stabbing organ lines and pounding Stax rhythm, and the jaunty, infectious "I Don't Believe," a brilliantly lilting vocal melody running counter to the thick, distorted instrumentation.

But the originals are the thing. The Reigning Sound, as enthusiastic as they are about their history, are clearly comfortable with their own songwriting abilities. "Straight Shooter" is awesomely propulsive bash and pop, shaggy-haired and shambling; "You're Not As Pretty" is Dylan-damaged invective, gentle tempos making the accusations that much sharper ("You're not as pretty as you thought you were"); "I Walk By Your House" is a keenly observed requiem for aging and lost love. The album's title track is a killer lark sung from the perspective of a charmingly disenchanted teenager. "Well I ain't a jock and I ain't a geek/ And I ain't no computer geek/ I don't seem to fit in down at the Time Bomb High School," laments Cartwright over doubletime Chuck Berry riffs, just like they used to make 'em. Last chance for a slow dance comes with "I'm Holding Out," a prom theme for the switchblade set, a dead sharp ballad blending menace and hurt.

The Reigning Sound might be retro, but they aren't gimmicky schtick-slingers. Instead, they take what's old and turn it into something vital and fresh, one of rock's oldest -- and best -- tricks. And more power to 'em, because on Time Bomb High School the Reigning Sound rule.