As one half of the greatest rock alchemists of the past 30 years, thanks to his work with the Flat Duo Jets, Dexter Romweber has earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. These days, that means teaming up with his drummer sister Sara (formerly of Snatches of Pink), calling up a few vocal ringers, and seeing what happens when he tosses a new influence—German cabaret, of all things!—into his heady stew of rockabilly, jazz, country, and surf. Ruins of Berlin might not play at the Cabaret Voltaire, but damned if Romweber doesn’t have some fun following this new muse.
Ruins of Berlin‘s 14 tracks are equally spread between originals and long-forgotten covers (unless the names Morty Nevins and John J. Beveridge have currency in your house), and naturally, Ruins’ instrumental tracks kill. Opener “Lookout”, with some help from Southern Culture on the Skids’ Rick Miller, plays like textbook Romweber: surf, rockabilly, jazz, with some horns thrown in for good measure. The exotic spy theme “Cigarette Party” and (especially) the slinky gypsy vamp “Polish Work Song” are pure Telephone Free Landslide Victory-era Camper Van Beethoven. That said, it’s apparent that, despite possessing a voice that booms like a forlorn ghost trapped in a well, Romweber, as a lyricist, is a great guitarist. “Forgive me for the things both far and near”, goes the inscrutable plea on “People, Places and Things”—really, there’s more expression in the pastoral waltz of his guitar on “Oh, Lover’s Gone” than any of the lyrics he penned could hope to match.
As for those aforementioned ringers, they pitch in with varied results. Exene Cervenka (X, Original Sinners) turns in a surprisingly lifeless “Lonesome Train”, though the dark, clanging world the siblings Romweber conjure around her more than carry the tune, and damned if Neko Case doesn’t get drowned out by Kelly Hogan on “Still Around”—surely the only time that’s ever happened to Case. Only Cat Power, who knows a thing or two about smoky covers, acquits herself nicely on the late-night (natch) vibe of “Love Letters”.
Lastly, Romweber’s fabled dip in the cabaret pool. He dives headlong into the title track, made famous by Marlene Dietrich, who tackled it for Billy Wilder’s 1948 film, A Foreign Affair. (Suffice to say, Dietrich fills out a dress better than Romweber presumably would.) If Romweber’s not borrowing the original’s string section, he has well-internalized its intrigue and theatricality. Pretty good for a cat with roots in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Of course, to these ears, Ruins of Berlin‘s standout track is the just-Dex-and-his-guitar, spare-as-all-hell closer, “Is It Too Late?”, dedicated by Romweber to the song’s writer, Roy House. With an unblinking directness, Romweber proposes his own pile of ruins: “You cheated and lied without shame / Now you go by a different name / You tell folks I’m the one to blame”. It’s just about this point when one realizes that all the genre excursions and hybrids in the world take a backseat to a guy with a great voice and mean way with a guitar.