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Dex Romweber Duo - Ruins of Berlin

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Artist: Dex Romweber Duo

Album: Ruins of Berlin

Label: Bloodshot

Review date: Feb. 24, 2009

Late last year, Bloodshot Records brought together stars Neko Case, Cat Power and Exene from X for a series of duets with a rockabilly guitarist from the Carolina Piedmont region. Backing musicians included members of the proto-indie-pop Let’s Active. The record, Ruins of Berlin, has original compositions, but about half the tracks are obscure covers, like the do-wop "Love Letters,” last heard on the Blue Velvet soundtrack. The disc culminates with a honky-tonk ballad from the guitarist’s hometown.

At this point, you should be hearing the voice of Scott Simon of Weekend Edition in your head. He pauses, then explains how the 73-year-old guitarist had mounting medicals bill after years of working in a textile-dying mill, and his musical progeny came together to help him out.

But Dex Romweber isn’t decrepit, or struggling, or a charity case. The guitarist of the Flat Duo Jets never achieved mass success during the band’s run in the 1990s, but he didn’t disappear when it was all over, either (four albums in eight years ain’t shabby at all). No, what earned Romweber the legion of fans that show up for duets on Ruins of Berlin was the Jets’ singular sound, a reimagining of rockabilly that stood apart from the pack – ragged, jazzy and strewn with ballads.

It’s hard to say if the Jets’ hallucinogenic-fueled break-up 10 years ago derailed any sort of path to fame for Romweber, since his own albums have always been an eccentric mash of mid-century styles. Plus, he seems comfortable aging along with all the other coulda-been-the-next-big-thing players in his hometown of Chapel Hill. The other half of his current duo is his big sister, Sarah, who had some (missed) shots at the big time as well, in Let’s Active and Snatches of Pink.

With Romweber now recording for the biggest label of his career, Ruins of Berlin feels like a forced attempt to reintroduce the guitarist to the Americana crowd. Given that this is billed as a duo, it’s hardly a stripped-down record (what with Neko, Chan and the like). The surf wig-outs get full band arrangements, complete with sax solos, and while the duets aren’t as embellished, they are polished, and like most such pairings, sound better on paper than in execution, (though Case’s duet generates some sparks). The record’s oversized persona feels strange because these sounds don’t owe that much to the twang or crate-digging excavations that built Romweber’s reputation. The title track even has Latin rhythms and set-piece lyrics – basically a Marlene Dietrich number.

There’s more heart in Romweber’s piano ballads, "Camelia’s Gone" and "Oh Lover’s Gone." They’ve got a ‘60s show-biz feel, only with coarser playing, like cousins to Nick Cave’s Boatsman’s Call songs. This was the direction in which Romweber was heading when the Flat Duo Jets flew apart in 1999. Hopefully this disc provides the stepping stone that let him work in that mode again.

By Ben Donnelly

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