The first thing you notice is the source material. Actually, that’s a lie. Before anything, there are the variations of the two-member-band sound Dexter Romweber has been pioneering for the past two decades. But once they settle into your skull, you are alerted to the inspirations he digs into and the generations he unleashes them upon.
On his new album “Ruins of Berlin,” the veteran North Carolina guitarist, singer, bandleader and indie rock impresario resurrects “Still Around,” a stoic country tune Billy Sherrill wrote for Tammy Wynette in 1969. Romweber found it on the back of a Wynette 45 single and fashioned it into a duet with Neko Case.
Dexter Romweber Duo
Ruins of Berlin
(Bloodshot; US: 10 Feb 2009; UK: 10 Feb 2009)
(Orange; US: 17 Oct 2006; UK: Available as import)
Solo! Duo! Trio!: Blues That Defy My Soul
(Yep Roc; US: 1 Jun 2004; UK: 24 May 2004)
Then there is “Lonesome Train,” a tune that wheezed along torchy orchestral tracks when Stan Kenton’s orchestra cut it in 1952 with the woozy vocals of Kay Brown as a locomotive. Romweber strips the song to rockabilly essentials, has a ball with the unavoidably spastic chorus and enlists X’s Exene Cervenka as a vocal partner.
And on the new album’s title tune, Romweber reinvents a song Marlene Dietrich sang surrounded by smoke and servicemen in Billy Wilder’s 1948 film “A Foreign Affair.” There are no big names on this one. “Ruins of Berlin” instead promotes Romweber’s current guitar-and-drums aggregation, which enlists sister Sara Romweber on percussion. Their new version of “Ruins of Berlin” is lean, efficient and immensely rhythmic.
“My record collection has everything from J.S. Bach to Jackie Gleason,” said Romweber. “So I’m always digging around, whether it’s in music from the early surf movement in California or rockabilly or country.”
Having such eccentrically disparate cover material at hand almost overshadows the fact that Romweber has some expert original tunes peeking through on “Ruins of Berlin.”
The album-opening instrumental “Lookout” teams Romweber with Southern Culture on the Skids frontman Rick Miller for a tasty slab of brassy surf and twang. Romweber and Miller are longtime friends and near neighbors. Romweber even recorded his previous album, a 2004 solo venture titled “Blues That Defy My Soul,” at Miller’s Kudzu Ranch Studio.
The guest list might initially impress the most when listening to “Ruins of Berlin” (alt-pop chanteuse Cat Power also helps out on a cover of the 1962 Kitty Lester hit “Love Letters”). But the album - and, indeed, the duo - is essentially refinements of an elemental, roots-derived rock charge Romweber has favored since the dawn of the ‘90s. That’s when he began touring relentlessly with Flat Duo Jets, a two-man band with a tireless, primal vitality. The new duo with sister Sara (also a pop pro, having served in Mitch Easter’s band Let’s Active during the mid-‘80s) moderates the Jets’ manic drive but not its underlying musical edge or eclectic, roots-driven intent.
“It’s doesn’t change what Romweber does, of course - a timeless rockabilly-vampire bullroar that’s as powerful now as it was when he led the Flat Duo Jets,” wrote David Menconi last month in the News & Observer, a newspaper in Raleigh, N.C., where Romweber has long been treated as a regional hero. Technically, the singer has long lived in Chapel Hill.
Of course, as novel as fronting a two-member band might seem, Romweber said recording and touring within a duo setting has been more a decision of simple practicality than an example of artistic ingenuity.
“The Duo Jets started out as a duo purely by accident. It wasn’t anything we set out to do or plan. There was just no else around at the time. Today, I would love to have more people onstage with me and Sara. But the problem is financial.
“I have another band here in Chapel Hill called The New Romans. We have nine members - saxophonists, backup singers, a keyboardist, bassist, a second guitarist and even another percussionist. And we can’t even begin to afford to tour. Even now with the duo, we barely make enough to keep going.
“But a duo situation really offers something. I think drums and guitar are the basis of rock ‘n’ roll. And we do a lot with what we have. But, for me, I wouldn’t mind seeing a third person up there.”
Artists like Case and Cat Power teamed with Romweber on “Ruins of Berlin” largely out reverence, having vocally cited his music with Flat Duo Jets as an influence. Another formidable talent not on the album also credited Romweber’s inspiration: Jack White, who has redefined the rock duo format during the past decade with The White Stripes. White has referred to Romweber as “one of the best-kept secrets in the rock ‘n’ roll underground.”
“A few months ago, I went through a period where I listened again to all of my records just to see if I still liked them at all,” Romweber said. “From that, I thought it was pretty cool that Jack had gotten something from those records and went on to do what he did. I find that pretty interesting.”