Flat Duo Jets: Hipster Chic or Amazing Rock 'n' Roll?
My friend Brent recently directed me to Oxford American's excellent profile of Dexter Romweber. The author Aaron Gilbreath writes a very effective and cogent history of Romweber's musical career, most significantly his time with the rootsy lo-fi Flat Duo Jets, who are long overdue for critical reevaluation. Gilbreath intersperses his essay with live footage from YouTube, including some crazy early footage of Dex as rockabilly wild man in the Screaming Lord Sutch mold giving a tour of the mausoleum that the band practiced in. He also includes other early footage with just Dex and Crow, as well as a fairly sedate performance from David Letterman with a full band. Yet fairly sedate for the Flat Duo Jets is an understatement -- even at their most subdued, they are a rocking machine, capturing the magic and sound of early Sun studio sides, while maintaining their own signature sound. Dex is yowling into the microphone and playing guitar like a madman. Crow is flailing on drums, while the rest of the band keeps up admirably. The final footage is tellingly connected to Jack White's adoration of the group and Dexter Romweber's subsequent work, including a compelling rendition of "The Wind Did Move" that features Jack White and a full run of the Flat Duo Jets documentary, Two Headed Cow.
The whole package is quite admirable and it made me want to return to my collection and listen to The Flat Duo Jets. I love Romweber's later recordings, (they swing from soul to jazz to rock 'n' roll; he even recorded an album of original piano tunes) but there is something primal and magnificent about those Flat Duo Jets records. I always return to Go Go Harlem Baby, which is now more readily available, due to a reissue on Third Man Records. But my original 1991 pressing on Sky records still sounds great. I picked it up at a thrift store, entirely unaware of the band's existence. It looks cool -- the black and white cover of a woman's leopard print top and hair is only obscured by the band's name written in a computerized logo and the title in wilder script in pink. The music on the record is primitive, yet phenomenal. The duo rips through sixteen songs in around forty minutes. Some are covers and some are originals, but they all are reinvented in the able hands of Dex and Crow. Their rendition of the traditional "Froggie Went A'Courtin" (here named Frog Went A'Courtin) is proof enough of their versatility. They get great sound as a two piece, but Jim Dickinson's production and piano work aren't too shabby either. That they made the trek to the spiritual ground zero of rockabilly, recording at Sun studios probably didn't hurt.
The thing to remember is that Flat Duo Jets make rockabilly that is fast, pure, and traditional. They don't punk it up the slightest, but in its purity, it shreds more than many later retro outfits. It makes sense that Jack White is a convert; he took a similar approach to garage rock and made extremely influential and successful records. Dex and Crow didn't do that. They made great records that stand the test of time; in fact, they seem timeless. You could ask yourself when they were made. That Go Go Harlem Baby came out in 1991 is a testament to the group's vision. Nobody was putting out records that sound this authentic, from rocking rockabilly numbers to 50's soul ballads, in the 1991 musical world of hair metal and pop music. It makes sense that they slipped through the cracks, but now is a perfect time for people to discover them. With Gilbreath's article and Jack White's support, Romweber is becoming better known, and hopefully more of the Flat Duo Jets albums will be reissued. If you have any enthusiasm for fifties rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, or authentic music that comes from the soul, do yourself a favor, get out and see him in concert. At the very least, pick up Go Go Harlem Baby. You can get it on cool colored vinyl and save yourself the hassle of hearing about it again in 20 years, and wondering why you missed out.
Get it here, or ask your favorite record shop: