Those who have seen the semi-classic 1987 documentary Athens, GA/Inside Out have a hard time forgetting guitarist Dexter Romweber and drummer Chris "Crow" Smith blasting away with their über-raw, enigmatic version of rockabilly as Flat Duo Jets. The footage really drives home the fact that most musical pioneers rarely receive the credit deserved, as both the White Stripes' and the Black Keys' flood of critical acclaim and record sales seem silly once one absorbs what Flat Duo Jets were doing some 15 years earlier.
Romweber formed the Jets in 1983 with Smith, a friend since the fifth grade. They enjoyed an odd moment of exposure on MTV's underground music show Cutting Edge in 1985 and released their debut EP (five covers, one original), In Stereo, the same year. Romweber and Smith then moved to Athens, Georgia, for a year, and, by the time Inside Out was shot, they were considered local enough for inclusion. Moving back to Chapel Hill, the duo played out and toured as much as possible, amassing a respectable live following. Nonetheless, a label remained elusive until 1990, when R.E.M.'s manager, Jefferson Holt, released Flat Duo Jets on his Dog Gone label. This album was followed by Go Go Harlem Baby, produced by Memphis music patriarch Jim Dickinson and partially recorded at Sun Studios.
In 1993, the appropriate but sometimes retro-to-a-fault Norton Records released Safari, a 75-minute collection of live and unreleased odds and ends laid down between 1984 and 1987, some of which were allegedly recorded in a planetarium restroom. White Trees followed the same year on Sky Records, and then it was back to Norton for two well-received albums, Introducing Flat Duo Jets and Red Tango. With these albums, the insane, energetic, and tireless duo established itself as the consummate underground purveyors of fidelity-challenged rockabilly (not neo-rockabilly or, rather, nothing close to the Reverend Horton Heat) and occasional detours into torch songs, roughed-up Martin Denny/Esquivel-style exotica, and stripped-bare country.
Then came Lucky Eye, the Jets' 1998 flirtation with a major label and the record that a faction of fans reacted against with upturned noses. Produced by Scott Litt (R.E.M.), the album has a full sound accented by string and horn sections, all but abandoning the duo's signature sonic nastiness. Devastating Romweber when it sold less than 4,000 copies, the underrated album, sadly notable as the last Flat Duo Jets title, is worth trolling the used bins for.
Romweber split company with Smith under tumultuous circumstances and focused on his solo career (his first solo album, Folk Songs, was released in 1996). He signed to Manifesto Records for Chased by Martians, a more varied affair than any Flat Duo Jets album, as indicated by covers of Charlie Rich, the Who, W.C. Handy, and the Surfaris. 2003's Blues That Defy My Soul finds Romweber fronting a trio and is a less festive, somewhat emotionally unhinged answer to its predecessor.
The aptly titled Piano was released on Orange Sound in 2006 before Romweber launched his next phase, a return to the duo format with his younger sister Sara, founder of Snatches of Pink and an early member of Let's Active. The Dexter Romweber Duo (seemingly named to avoid any fan confusion) has recently signed a multi-album deal with Bloodshot Records.
The first, as-yet-untitled album will feature duets with Neko Case, Cat Power, and Exene Cervenka. Also, fans and the uninitiated alike are encouraged to check out Two-Headed Chicken, a 2006 documentary (two decades in the making and courtesy of the filmmakers behind Athens, GA/Inside Out) that covers the entirety of Romweber's career.
Heartbreaking, fascinating, hilarious, and inspiring, the film does not skimp on warts-and-all details but does feature a slew of more successful artists praising Romweber. Chan Marshall claims Romweber as the inspiration behind the purchase of her first guitar, and Jack White gives credit where credit is due. The 18-song soundtrack was released earlier this year and should hold fans over until the Bloodshot debut, an album that promises to be a career highlight.