Musical meaning is measured in millions. Pampered, mega-sloth Mac-Poodles are led around the electronic cage on invisible leashes by giant invisible corporate owners and applauded as they receive their sales-pet-of-the-year awards. Dexter Romweber is different. He doesn’t sell millions, and he’s no prize poodle. More like a junkyard dog called “Little Bastard”. Dex’s new album is entitled Chased By Martians and make no mistake. Those Martians know a good thing when they hear it.
Chased By Martians shows why the less compromised music elite — Beck and Keith Richards, for example — pay homage to this sub-alternative, frazzled-looking East Virginia singer/guitarist. Dex mixes punk, rockabilly, stone age jazz, surf and aching, burning torch ballads in an alchemical blend that’s his alone.
Anyone who ever saw the Flat Duo Jets on the dive bar circuit, where they played for fourteen long years, knows Dex is different. No studious geek from the No-Depression-University-of-Politically-Correct-Country, no latest-Velvet-Underground-haircut-and-shades-tribute-band-from-NY, no mint ’50s Gretsch collector, duck’s ass cultivator, trailer trash impersonator, or Heat-seeking revivalist. If such an ugly beast as rock and roll still survives in this genocidal 3rd millennium from the sun, Dexter is it — an afflicted, manically intense, heart-broken train wreck of a singer/guitarist with more rock action in his bowed, scowling face than 99.9% of our era’s musical wankers have envisioned in their most sheet-staining visions of being visionaries.
If you dig dirty, no pedals, surf-punk guitar, Dex coasts from head-butting swag down to ear mangling thrash and on up and out to sky painting reverb-&-vibrato-soaked tone flights all in 22 seconds. Try “Love Has Its Jokes Sometimes” from Go Go Harlem Baby for an all-time-top-ten-under-thirty-second-electric solo that’s just a sandwich short of Quine’s no-contenders napalm picnic on “Blank Generation”. But there’s more.
There’s the voice. Dex is the greatest untrained & unchained rock and roll singer of our time. Check out “Lonely Guy”, “Dark Night”, and the glistening black hole ballad, “Go This Way” (“just a million miles of me and the stars above”) on the Flat Duo Jets’ Lucky Eye. Then try “Use To You” and the heart breaking “Feel Like Going Home” on Chased By Martians. Dexter is the raw ass-howling hillbilly Hamlet of dark night of the soul vocal testifying.
But there’s more. Dex is one fabulous songwriter. The lyrics don’t always make linear sense, but they make total soul sense. “Sharks flying in from outer space / Come to Rock, Rock the human race”. I mean . . . Yeah! Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen . . . eat your art out!
Dexter will never become a Mac-Roc-Star, propped up by his latest product like a burger leaning on a pile of fries. Dex’s raucous musical dynamics, unstructured attack, lyrical craziness, emotional rawness and un-Ritalin-becalmed rowdiness don’t fit the comfort zones of consumers raised on the pre-digested sounds of today’s alt-rock. But when connoisseurs of the wild blood wander the back roads a hundred years from now, Dex and the Flat Duo Jets will cast big ole boogieman shadows on the white trees.
Lucky Eye is a tough album to follow, but Chased By Martians follows it anyway. Dex never had a plan. He’s like the beat. He goes on. I’ve seen a wild-eyed Dex abandon a gig half way through a set and storm out of the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, tumbling into the night, leaving his Silvertone laying in the middle of the beer-stained dance-floor, a confused audience shrugging their shoulders, and Crow shaking his head and packing up his drums, having probably experienced Dex’s mood swings and blown fuses more times than enough. Dex always seemed like a man about to be torn apart by the energies that fuel his music. On Chased By Martians though, he is surfing the dangerous liquid surface of his emotions with increasing confidence and mastery.
The inimitable sleeve notes tell it all: “I slip in. What incarnation will I take? The whore of Babylon or the dire musician? Where shall we go? To the west of Zanzibar or to the east of Memphis? It doesn’t matter now (maybe just a little). I had a lot of thinking to do. And after that . . . more thinking.”
Chased By Martians jumps off the dock with “15,000 Lives” a dark, foreboding tale of mass murder that I thought was Dex’s response to 9-11 until I realized the album was released just after September 11, 2001. The prophetic chorus — “He took 15,000 lives” — and distorted musings like “all these maniacs it’s a wonder anyone survives” make you wonder what Dex was channeling at the time. A hilarious, upbeat, hayseed version of the Who’s “The Seeker” follows, featuring Patsy Cline’s fiddler Sonny Mead. Sonny also appears on “Walkin’ With Scary Hillbilly Monsters”, a spooky, melancholy instrumental whose Cramps-ish B-movie title belies its melodic beauty and stylistic flair.
Dexter has been exploring two instrumental territories throughout his career, sketched out early on “Wild Trip” and “Harlem Nocturne” from Go Go Harlem Baby. On the one hand he is up for bare knuckles guitar-drums-workouts like “Bombora” and “Guybo”: scratching out a riff and diving like a mad dog at whatever leads he can take with no bass player at his back. On the other hand, Dex loves classic, polished 50’s electric guitar tones and has a connoisseur’s ability to evoke the sonic atmosphere of early rock and roll recordings. “New York Studio 1959” shows this sweeping, romantic side of Dex.
“Walkin’ With Scary Hillbilly Monsters” is another chapter in Dex’s evolution as a composer, arranger and instrumentalist. The innovative character of the tune is the introduction of Sonny Mead’s grainy country fiddle into the surf-rockabilly instrumental terrain. It’s a typically spontaneous and playful piece of Dex’s genius for experimenting with the rockabilly genre, of which he is one of the two or three true living masters.
If you give a damn about rock and roll, buy Chased By Martians and the Flat Duo Jets’ unbeatable last album Lucky Eye. Dex is the living flame of American roots music and you owe it to yourself to experience him. It just might save your life.