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Flat City

Many of the performers whom Flat Duo Jets singer/guitarist Dexter Romweber numbers among his heroes were either long in the tooth or dead by the time of his 1966 birth. So it's fairly strange to hear him commenting on something he seldom watches: MTV. As Romweber tells it, he turned on the channel after a day spent listening to Marlene Dietrich records. Shortly thereafter, he realized that "Angry Johnny," a heavy-rotation item by current MTV darling Poe, sounds amazingly similar to a number cut by the star of The Blue Angel back in the Thirties. "And then," he says, "there was this other band, Oasis, and they're playing all these Beatle chords. And I thought, 'These people are no less retro than I am. I'm just a little more raw.'"

This rawness--a gloriously rough-hewn quality produced by Romweber and longtime drummer Crow (a pal since elementary school)--is what separates the Jets from most MTV fodder. But although their work is deeply rooted in vintage rockabilly, hillbilly and blues, this two-man band is no preservationist society. Instead, the pair fuses its timeworn influences (Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Johnny Horton and the Ventures among them) with the primal thunder of the finest punk and three-chord rock. The result is a hurricane swirl that packs more punch and emotion than a month's rotation of Soundgarden, Metallica and Green Day. Better yet, it's completely without pretension.

Formed in 1984, the Jets soon became favorites in their home base of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Athens, Georgia, the college town that spawned R.E.M., the B-52's and others. The group's appearance in Inside Athens, Georgia, a documentary about the music scene there, provided the film with a jarring jolt of rock-and-roll essence--and the twosome's first full-length release, 1989's Flat Duo Jets, proved no less incendiary. A nitro-charged minor classic, the disc features a blistering mix of hillbilly and rockabilly tunes, surf instrumentals and obscure covers, all of which are performed with reckless abandon.

Before long, the Jets were appearing on national tours with outfits such as the Cramps and winning praise for their "live to two-track" recording method. This minimalist approach is utilized throughout subsequent albums, including White Trees and Introducing the Flat Duo Jets. But the 1993 long-player Safari (on the Norton imprint) is perhaps the tastiest of the act's low-fi treats. The CD collects 34 cuts, most of them ranging between two and three minutes in length. Some are studio efforts, some are demos and a few are so-called field recordings cut in buildings and bathrooms located on the campus of the University of North Carolina. The best of these ditties capture the Jets in their element: lively and hell-bent.

In the flesh, the Jets create an astonishing wall of sound. Romweber, soft-spoken and shy off stage, becomes a crazed wildcat while performing. Hunched over his trusty Silvertone guitar, he conjures up reverb-laden licks that somehow synthesize the styles of Duane Eddy, Scotty Moore and Django Reinhardt; meanwhile, his Jekyll-and-Hyde vocals jump from a spooky Elvis croon to a manic Gene Vincent howl. For his part, the faithful Crow keeps crowds stomping by deftly shifting from intense jungle-drum wallops to Gene Krupa-esque swinging. "I want our shows to be a unique experience--a sort of musical revue," Romweber notes. "We try to touch on every genre of music...but with a savage approach."

In Romweber's view, musicians of the past conveyed more sonic ruthlessness than do today's players--and he thinks he knows why. "Older artists lived harder than people today," he states. "They didn't have everything handed to them; they had the hard grit of life. It wasn't until I got older and did a hard day's work that I realized that it could add to what I was doing."

Romweber demonstrates his work ethic on his solo debut, Folk Songs, now out on Permanent Records. A skin-and-bones gem, the platter includes primitive rockers and lonesome ballads that sound as if they were recorded forty years ago, as well as the singer's initial forays on piano. Romweber first became interested in the instrument a few years ago, when his sister Sara (a onetime member of Let's Active now in the band Clarissa) gave him a recording of pieces by Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt. "That tape hit me so hard that I decided I wanted to be a classical pianist!" Romweber remembers. He decided to take formal lessons, but this experiment didn't quite work out. "I fell in love with my teacher," he reports. "It got weird." There was also another problem, he adds: "I wanted to play piano like Django Reinhardt played guitar." Romweber hasn't given up on his dream, however; he hones his piano chops four hours a day when he's not on the road with the Jets.

Right now, of course, Romweber's taking a break from the keyboard: He and Crow are in the midst of a two-month tour in support of their latest Norton release, Red Tango. Another roaring blend of choice covers and hepped-up Romweber originals, the album is willfully spontaneous. In fact, several tracks were cut without rehearsal; Crow heard them for the first time as they were being recorded. Romweber defends this methodology by making reference to another musician he admires. "Jackie Gleason never rehearsed, either," he points out.

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