Time Bomb High School
(In The Red)
The context: The unexpected popularity of The White Stripes' White Blood Cells in 2001 briefly shone a light on an underground-rock movement stretching back to the early days of American punk, when bands like the Cramps and The Fleshtones revived the spirit of Nuggets. Earlier, that tradition had inspired Greg Cartwright, whose bands The Compulsive Gamblers and The Oblivians stormed out of Memphis in the early '90s with a combination of primitive skronk and sweetly melodic roots music. By the time alt-rock mags and A&R men were invading New York, Detroit, Sweden, and Cincinnati in search of the next White Stripes, Cartwright was already entrenched as one of neo-garage's unsung heroes, though he mostly stayed in the shadows while the craze for his favorite genre waxed and waned.
The greatness: Cartwright founded Reigning Sound in 2001 as an outlet for some of his calmer country-rock and soul songs—so calm that the band's debut album, Break Up, Break Down, sounded almost inert. In 2002, Reigning Sound released Time Bomb High School, a much livelier record that cleaned up The Oblivians' scuzz and echo, and beefed up The Compulsive Gamblers' weepy balladry, fusing them into an effortlessly catchy, invigorating hybrid. Time Bomb High School is shored up by affecting midtempo anti-love songs like "You're Not As Pretty" and "I Walk By Your House," in which Cartwright reconsiders adolescent ardor from the perspective of middle-aged melancholy. But what makes the album jump are rockers like "Straight Shooter," which sounds like an Exile On Main Street outtake played with the clarity of London Calling-era Clash.
Defining song: "Brown Paper Sack," previously recorded by mid-'60s Memphis garage band The Gentrys, gets a rollicking revamp on Time Bomb High School, with Reigning Sound picking up the pace and boosting the shimmy. Cartwright swallows the chorus before roaring back, capturing the mood of the lyrics, which are all about being beaten down by love. The band's performance draws on the past and doesn't exactly update it, but instead gets back to a place where this sound, these words, and this energy made sense.