Graded on a Curve:
Dex Romweber Duo,
Images 13

Dexter Romweber continues to be most noted for his work as part of Flat Duo Jets, but if he keeps releasing LPs as strong as Images 13 that situation is bound to change. Recorded with his sister Sara, the Dex Romweber Duo’s latest album finds them in expectedly trim and energetic form, but key to its success is the level of subtle diversity on display.

Like many I’m guessing, my introduction to Dex Romweber came through the 1987 Tony Gayton-directed documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out. That film and its accompanying soundtrack illuminated one of the more storied regional scenes of the post-punk era, with its exponents including The B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M.

By the latter portion of the ‘80s, Athens’ musical productivity, loaded as it was with jangling college radio friendly guitars, frequently got saddled with the reputation of being just too damned well-mannered for its own good. It was a trait far from unwarranted; R.E.M. was sitting on the precipice of Big Rock Stardom (by the beginning of ’88, Document had sold a million), and all sorts of acts were attempting their own overly-pleasant wrinkles on that niche.

Athens, GA: Inside/Out helped to at least somewhat undercut this notion. Standing out was the noise-punk racket of Bar-B-Q Killers, but the biggest exception was easily Flat Duo Jets. They mixed a solid grip on pre-Beatle rock gumption with a wild streak of impoliteness that kept them securely out of the neo-rockabilly bag from earlier in the decade, and to these ears Dexter, drummer Crow, and bassist Griz “Tone” Mayer (who departed in 1990, leaving them as a two-piece for the rest of their run) landed in the fertile zone betwixt The Blasters and The Cramps.

Right about now most of those ‘80s Athens groups are forgotten. However, Flat Duo Jets’ small but fervent following persists, partially due to longevity but also because they came to be associated with another collegiate locale. North Carolina’s Research Triangle, specifically Chapel Hill, also served as a home for the outfit, with the state additionally fostering Sara Romweber’s background as original member of both Let’s Active and Snatches of Pink.

After the Jets’ dissolution in ’99 Dexter issued a series of discs under his own name that spotlighted him in a variety of swank settings, often paired with drummer Crash LaResh, and in ’07 he formed the Dex Romweber Duo in tandem with his sister. Ruins of Berlin, featuring guest spots from Southern Culture on the Skids-guitarist Rick Miller and vocalists Chan Marshall, Exene Cervenka, and Neko Case, was their ’09 Bloodshot Records debut. The unsurprising (given Jack White’s passionate Romweber fandom) Live at Third Man 02/04/2010 appeared next, and second studio alb Is That You in the Blue? hit racks in ’11.

Ruins of Berlin stands as a fine but fairly well-behaved affair while Is That You is bolder and fleshed out with considerable added instrumentation. With Images 13 SCOTS-man Miller returns as the Duo’s producer for the third time on a dandy set of tunes that if not as consistently raw as the Jets in their prime do occasionally exhibit similar levels of non-cultivation. And the leader’s guitar prowess, quickly set in motion via opener “Roll On,” looms large as ever.

A riff monster alternating between a chunky mid-tempo and faster sections coated in burning ‘60s garage fuzz, “Roll On” also includes surfy texture in the soloing as Dex’s vocal talents, here spitting out precise growls and barks, thicken the plot with panache. And throughout the cut Sara’s drumming is as on-the-money as ever.

Even more impressive is how that rhythmic approach is appropriate to each setting her brother throws onto the table. During “Roll On” she’s smacking the kit like Sandy Nelson, but on the ‘50s folk-country-rockabilly merger “Long Battle Coming” she adjusts with ease to a far more basic technique. Well, except for the moments where the track broadens into a crisp shuffle.

All of this may seem odd to those holding only a casual acquaintance with Dexter Romweber. The received wisdom is often that roots-focused ore doesn’t brandish much in the way of diversity. In fact a big part of its theoretical appeal is that the artists mining it do one or two things especially well. And if one listens inattentively to Romweber’s stuff, particularly certain stretches of material from the Jets, the overall unpolished tone might dominate the cat’s sheer range.

But in terms of scope Romweber has often struck me as a less eccentric cousin to Tav Falco, though in terms of self-penned material Dex clearly wins. Both have a talent for the brassiness of throat found in the work of rock-era Conway Twitty, but on Images 13’s “Baby I Know What It’s Like to Be Alone” it’s blended with songwriting possessive of a sly, almost contempo, backbone.

The biggest affinity between Tav and Dex is a love for undersung or downright unknown cover selections. The Who’s “So Sad About Us” doesn’t necessarily fit those descriptions (though I suspect that these days far too few are familiar with the tune), but with Miller’s SCOTS-partner Mary Huff contributing backing vocals this version, rendered with the  confidence of veteran players, brings the record some left-field power pop flavor.

On the surface “Prelude in G Minor” might connect like just another thick and powerful instrumental as roots statement, but flashes of punkish guitar snarl a la Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, and even Morricone lift it to a high plateau. If the title is ringing a bell labeled Sergei Rachmaninoff, that’s not unusual. Not only has Romweber mentioned Bach and Chopin as influences, but on the ’06 release Piano, easily his most unexpected and perhaps most unloved (yet wholly satisfying) career turn, he backs up those citations as more than lip-service on 13 concise tracks exploring solo Classical keyboard mode.

“Blackout!” also eschews words as it retains the Eddy-ish vibe and adds elements of ‘50s Hollywood jazziness for good measure. The return to balladry on “I Don’t Want to Listen” conjures visions of disillusioned slow-dancing stragglers at a Saturday night/Sunday morning sock hop, and “Beyond the Moonlight” lands securely in hayride/hootenanny territory.

The cover of “We’ll Be Together Again,” written by Sharon Sheeley about her boyfriend Eddie Cochran’s car crash demise (she and Gene Vincent survived the accident), is one of Images 13’s standouts. Romweber’s reading of the song, with nary a trace of irony in earshot, succeeds beyond expectations through the skilled mixture of achy sincerity and whip-crack musicianship (Sara’s smacking of the toms is a pure delight).

The contents of instrumental “Blue Surf” should be self-explanatory. And reading that “One Sided Love Affair” was borrowed from Johnny Burnette could lead one to jump to a certain ‘billy-ish conclusion, but in Dex’s hands the tune exemplifies classic late-‘50s/early-‘60s non-corn commercial C&W. “Weird (Aurora Borealis),” sourced from TV composer Harry Lubin (his rather slim resume flaunts The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond), closes the LP, the track combining tribal-esque drumming, singing saw, and snaky desert Western guitar for an experience aptly described as psychedelic.

Upon consideration, probably the most striking aspect of Images 13 is how the siblings Romweber can make a classic formal study like “Blue Surf” sound utterly relevant, not only this deep into the 21st century, but also this far into Dex’s career. Even the greatest of roots scientists have tricky relationships with longevity, but Romweber remains a vital, vigorous artist due to healthy creative restlessness and a vast array of congruent influences. Against the odds he’s knocked out another great album.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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