Dex Romweber Duo plays Cat’s Cradle Friday, July 22, at 9 p.m., with Birds of Avalon and Eric Sommer.
It’s been more than a dozen years since Chapel Hill’s Dex Romweber led the legendary and influential Flat Duo Jets, but it still feels unlikely he will ever fully outgrow his legacy as a wild rockabilly revivalist. But with his sister Saraformer drummer for Snatches of Pink and Let’s Activein the duo that takes his name, he’s steadily making a case for the expansion of his legacy with more tempered, focused takes on early rock ‘n’ roll. The new Is That You in the Blue? is the duo’s second proper album and its leader’s most consistent and distilled effort since Flat Duo Jets broke up. Getting here wasn’t easy, but a glance at Romweber’s last decade-plus makes the path seem clear enough.
Indeed, Romweber has been learning the new tricks that led him to Blue since before the Jets bowed out after 1998’s Lucky Eye. That swan song found the duo beginning to eschew its amphetamine rockabilly, instead employing a studio’s full capabilities as they traipsed through strings-led lounge on “New York Studio 1959.” But Lucky Eye was mostly a Duo Jets record; it was Romweber’s solo debut, 1996’s Folk Songs, that had offered an indication of what he might do beneath his own marquee. The 27-song collection brimmed with ideaslo-fi experiments, acoustic blues and country romps, wee-hours keyboard detoursbut never found a direction.
After the Jets broke up, Romweber was quiet until 2001’s Chased By Martians. He edited the track list down to 18, offered a shit-kickin’ cover of The Who’s “The Seeker” and dipped back into the ’60s country-rock he’d explore further with the duo. Romweber sounded revived, enough so that Yep Roc Records recruited him for 2004’s Blues That Defy My Soul. In spite of a stellar title track, it missed as often as it hit. Two years later, Piano presented another detourthis time, into spontaneous instrumental compositions for 88 keys. You had to wonder about Romweber.
Stalwart Americana label Bloodshot figured Romweber wasn’t done with rock ‘n’ roll yet. The Chicago label released Ruins of Berlin, the entrée for this family-based Dex Romweber Duo, in 2009. The record’s guest list included Exene Cervenka, Chan Marshall and Neko Case, a cast that provided ample marketing angles to get the Romwebers back on the road. The album was a success of classic American rock ‘n’ roll; originals and obscure covers moved fluidly together, each fitting snugly into Romweber’s vision of smoky exotica, late rockabilly-era rave-ups, surf-rock nocturnes, Southern twang and cocktail jazz. But the cameos seemed to draw attention away from the duo, not just augment them. Ruins cemented Romweber’s influence, rather than expand it on his own terms.
Is That You in the Blue?, the duo’s second LP for Bloodshot, does little to separate its sound from Ruins. But the conspicuous lack of duet partners forces the players to stand on their own legs, and they do. Local musicians, like producer and Southern Culture on the Skids leader Rick Miller and others culled from The Old Ceremony and Savage Knights, step in to provide keys here and horns there, but they never overwhelm the duo. “The Death of Me” finds Dexter at his most darkly seductive, crooning over agile swaths of guitar and organ and Sara’s hip-swiveling swing. At the other end of the spectrum, “Homicide” plays like an off-the-cuff jump-blues adventure that would’ve worked well on Chased by Martians. Romweber has both mastered and synthesized his influences, so the strident surf of “Gurdjieff Girl” washes seamlessly into the smoldering, resigned lounge dirge, “Nowhere.” It’s taken time, but Romweber has finally polished all of the pieces until they fit one puzzle.
With Blue?, the Dex Romweber Duo is done reinventing itself. There’s little here we haven’t heard before from him, but there’s little we’ve heard him do so well, either. Finally, that legacy is beginning to budge.