For nearly 30 years, the name Dex Romweber has been the password to a cool club. It lets the doorman size you up through the slit in the green door that leads to a world where rock and roll is still real… and real, real gone. Dex's progeny, impacted by his wild and wildly influential work in Flat Duo Jets, his Duo and solo, includes the White Stripes, the Black Keys, the Kills, Man or Astroman? and dozens of other bands that have stripped down, turned up, and cut loose.
Songs don’t just come out of Dex, they seem to erupt; there is an unearthly urgency in the singer and the song. There’s no tamping it down, Dex lays it out there every time. But sometimes – in all that mind-blowing sound and energy – the soul often gets overlooked, and Dex is, above all else, a deeply soulful performer.
Carrboro, with its cover shot of the railroad tracks that run through his hometown, where on a grey day or a dark night you'd find a young Dex immersing himself in the music of his idols, is his fourth record for Bloodshot (and his first for us a solo artist). Through 13 originals and far-ranging covers, Dex reaches into his steamer trunk of influences and inspirations, and fabricates an enthralling sonic quilt. As Dex describes his approach, “It doesn’t matter to me what genre—if I like a song I might record it.” It’s all different, but all of one piece.
On Carrboro, Dex assumes several musical mantles (and uncharacteristically plays all or many of the instruments). There’s the sparse and jumpy hillbilly liveliness of “Knock Knock (Who’s That Knockin’ On My Coffin Lid Door?)” with help from Rick Miller of Southern Culture On The Skids; “Lonesome Train,” originally recorded by Cecilia Batten in nearby Chapel Hill in ’57; and a take on the T. Bone Burnett-penned “I Don’t Know,” sung by The Dude and Ryan Bingham for the film Crazy Heart (says Dex: “the lyrics seem to be so much about my own life… damn I just had to record it”). With the fuller sound of the New Romans, a 10-piece Chapel Hill collective, “Nightide” is a Tarantino grind on the surf-deck of the USS Enterprise, while Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World” throbs with a thrilling apocalyptic gloom.
Dex’s last-call crooner persona kicks off the album with a surprising contemporary cover, that of English singer-songwriter Findlay Brown’s “I Had A Dream” (“It affected me deeply personally when I first heard it,” Dex explains). He embraces “Smile,” a Charlie Chaplin tune (yeah, you read that right) and the Jerry Lee Lewis obscurity “Tomorrow’s Taking Baby Away” with Waits-ian levels of resignation and weariness. And no Dex Romweber record is complete without some instrumental wizardry. There’s the tiki surf of “Midnight at Vic’s” and the sunset dreamscape of “Out of the Way.” He even turns “My Funny Valentine,” the Rodgers and Hart Broadway chestnut from the 1930s into the soundtrack to a ghostly roller rink murder caper.
In the end, the album plays like the jukebox at the full service honky-tonk saloon, jazz club, Tin Pan Alley pitch house, and blues joint along the tracks. Get off at the Carrboro station.
"Dex Romweber was and is a huge influence on my music. I owned all of his records as a teenager, and was thrilled at the fact that we were able to play together recently on tour. His attitude towards music is remarkable. His songwriting, along with his love of classic American music from the south, be it rockabilly, country or R&B, is one of the best kept secrets of the rock n roll underground." —Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather)
Flat Duo Jets – so often emulated, so rarely duplicated – released the first of nine albums in 1990 to rave reviews worldwide. They starred, alongside R.E.M. and The B-52s, in the 1987 cult classic film Athens, GA: Inside/Out. Their first national tour in 1990 was as opening act for The Cramps (where Bloodshot Rob first saw them) and they made a stunning impression on Late Night with David Letterman.
Dex was name-checked by Jack White in the guitar superstar documentary It Might Get Loud, and the Duo recorded a single and live album with White for his label Third Man Records in 2009. The Duo has shared the stage with dozens of rock icons including Wanda Jackson, Cat Power, Neko Case, Exene Cervenka, Detroit Cobras, Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, Southern Culture on the Skids and The White Stripes.
In 2012, the documentary about Dex’s sometimes harrowing career Two Headed Cow was released.
Guitar fans take note. Dex ain't one of those guys who needs series of effects pedals the size of a table top to destroy a room; all that noise, that beautiful beautiful noise he makes just comes his guitar, his fingers and his brain. If only 10% of guitarists played with HALF his conviction, the world would be a much better, and wilder, place.