I'm trying to avoid hyperbole here, but Time Bomb High School (In the Red; Grade: A), the just-released sophomore album from The Reigning Sound, transcends any qualifiers about "local music" whether or not it fulfills its increasingly considerable commercial prospects. In fact, the other records I've been thinking about most while listening to it constantly over the last couple of weeks are rather daunting comparisons: Time Bomb High School absorbs and reinvigorates pre-hippie Sixties rock and soul in much the same way that Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" absorbs and reinvigorates pre-rock blues and pop. And it is as concocted out of record-shop dust and marked by personal vision as DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. Time Bomb High School may not be quite the enduring masterpiece that those two touchstones already are, but, with the lone possible exception of the White Stripes' White Blood Cells (which draws on a different set of influences but, like Time Bomb High School, was recorded locally at Easley-McCain Studios), it's the deepest and purest musical statement to come out of the recent garage-rock rebirth.
Lead singer/songwriter Greg Cartwright has long shown an uncanny knack for penning original songs that sound like lost rock-and-roll classics without sounding like he's trying to write songs that sound like lost rock-and-roll classics. The catalogs of Cartwright's previous bands -- the Compulsive Gamblers and the Oblivians -- are rife with such strokes of startling craftsmanship. The difference here, I think, is that Cartwright has finally found the perfect balance between noise and nuance. After the blistering garage-punk of the Oblivians, the first Reigning Sound album, last year's Break Up Break Down, sounded like a radical departure -- a mostly quiet record that evoked Byrdsy folk-rock and Everly Brothers-style country. As fine as it was, it also sounded like a solo record.
Time Bomb High School, by contrast, is the sound of a band coming into its own, with the uniformly great contributions of drummer Greg Roberson, bassist Jeremy Scott, and guitarist/organist Alex Greene as essential to the sound as Cartwright himself. This band gets into the bones and flesh of a whole era's worth of great records without directly quoting any of them (outside of four covers, none of them standards), while Cartwright spikes them with a series of memorable lyrics. ("Reptile Style" is the best stuck-in-the-same-room-with-an-ex song since the Beatles' "I Don't Want To Spoil the Party," and that's just a highlight.)
Taking musical verities from one of American pop music's greatest, and least appreciated, eras and investing them with such musicality, imagination, smarts, and soul has to be some kind of grand patriotic achievement in this time of national crisis. Somebody get these guys medals -- or at least a fat record deal, so they can quit their day jobs.
His first non-self-released record since putting out Work Songs For a New Moon for RCA back in 1989, one-time would-be pop star Rob Jungklas makes a strong return to the record-making business with Arkadelphia (MADJACK; Grade: B+), an acoustic-based set of songs with a brooding and atmospheric, yet rootsy, musical tone that is something akin to PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love or some of the recent Tom Waits records. And, like Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, Jungklas' latest is regionally specific, a personal tour of Delta mythology. Jungklas' earthbound vocals keep the record from truly earning those comparisons, but Arkadelphia is a sharp set of songs. "I don't care what the Good Book promise/I don't care what the preacher man say/I'm a'move when the spirit moves me/And the whiskey and the women help me to pray," Jungklas sings on the opening "Drunk Like Son House," and the record frequently lives up to that lyrical standard in both content and poetic impact.
Arkadelphia is a foreboding song cycle populated by a vengeful Old Testament God and ever-resourceful devil, characters who make appearances through memorable one-liners like "Sometimes, God will mumble/But the devil always enunciates" and "God rode through Clarksdale with a shotgun out the driver's side/I'm gonna cut down anybody who doesn't have the sense to hide." But for all the record's fire-and-brimstone religious imagery, the concluding song, "Poker Face," finds Jungklas arriving at a place even more uncomfortable --in front of a mirror: "I am one man among many/I was raised up to do right/You don't need to meet the devil at the crossroads/To lose your soul on this dark night."
Arkadelphia also marks a return for local label MADJACK, which has been quiet lately but is still batting 1.000 when it comes to quality. Look for the label to be a lot busier in the coming months with the release of Lucero's sophomore disc, Tennessee, and the national rerelease of Cory Branan's The Hell You Say. And the business will kick off this week at the Hunt-Phelan Home with a CD-release party for Arkadelphia at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 27th.
If you want a lighter, more delicate take on the blues tradition, Alvin Youngblood Hart's Down In the Alley (Memphis International; Grade: A-) should fit the bill. I generally get more excited by Hart's electric forays into classic rock and hippie country than by his acoustic blues sets, but there's no arguing with something as fine as this: Hart with a bevy of vintage string instruments and a catalog of traditional blues standards. On Down In the Alley, Hart's underrecognized singing (check out that high-pitched howl that introduces "How Long Before I Change My Clothes") is as nimble and nuanced as his always-masterful picking, channeling the long-lost likes of "Sleepy" John Estes, Charley Patton, and Skip James. As simple as can be, it's the best blues record this blues-crazed town has seen since the last time Hart stepped into a recording studio.
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org