[19 May 2008]
God help the future anthropologist who dredges up the music of Flat Duo Jets in an unmarked time capsule. While it’s true that the Jets formed in 1983, you’d swear they crawled out of the Bayou circa 1956. The singer was called Dexter Romweber, the drummer “Crow” Smith, and boy were they hung up on early rock‘n’roll. In their own music, they would channel past masters like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and fuse it with the scorching raw power of primordial punk.
Released earlier this year, Two Headed Cow is the soundtrack to filmmaker Tony Gayton’s long-time-coming Jets rock-doc of the same name. The album itself, seemingly culled from a series of unspecified concert recordings, thrillingly showcases the onstage ferocity of the twin cyclones from Chapel Hill.
“Hoy Hoy” is a visceral opener, a kick in the head if you’ve ever heard one. At 2:02, it rocks like a mechanical bull gone haywire. Romweber—his voice a bonafide growl—yells, “Well I dreamed of heaven and I saw my baby there / She had pearly white teeth and long blonde curly hair.” Elsewhere, “Frog Went A Courtin’” is positively dripping with high-octane sweat, while “Rock House” is definitely the place you want to be. Throughout, the Jets stick to what you might call a tried-and-suede-blue tactic, occasionally offering up hellacious takes on surf rock with tracks like “Rawhide” and “Tidalwave”.
If there’s a weakness to these songs then, it’s their general consistency. While the intensity of the performances is in many cases an end in itself, there’s a decided lack of catchiness. The incontrovertible cool of the early rock period is effectively translated, but you sometimes wish there was something more in the way of memorable hooks. Tracks like “Torquay” run flat-out at a mile-per-second, and it’s all you can do to just hold on for dear life. A little more melody here and there, maybe another slow song or two and this disc would be a little easier to listen to. As I’ve implied, this record’s got ferocity in spades, but considering that the Jets were capable of affecting balladry, this side of the band might have been a little more thoroughly represented.
These are minor complaints, although they probably go some way towards explaining why Flat Duo Jets remained a cult act while Brian Setzer’s contemporaneous Stray Cats found considerable chart success. Like all ‘80s cult acts, however, the Jets’ lack of mainstream savvy and a marketable new-wave image makes them that much more endearing. As for Romweber himself, the man has lived and breathed the promise of rock‘n’roll since day one. In an early clip from MTV’s Cutting Edge program, the rapscallion young front man eagerly gestures toward wallet-sized photographs of Elvis, Gene Vincent, and Buddy Holly in his room, with a giddy appreciation that’s truly touching. Indeed, during the ‘80s and ‘90s, he and Smith personified the heart and soul of rockabilly. There were other revivalists in the picture, but it was the Jets that monopolized the region of raw zeal. Today, their music continues to exude a fiery charisma all its own, and, while it may not strut, it certainly swaggers.