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The Reverend Horton Heat / Dexter Romweber - Revival / Blues That Defies My Soul

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Artist: The Reverend Horton Heat / Dexter Romweber

Album: Revival / Blues That Defies My Soul

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: Aug. 25, 2004

The 1990s brought on a slew of third-generation genre revivals by bands lacking in vitality. Ska, rockabilly, lounge and swing beats bubbled out of late-'80s punk clubs, as former non-musicians acquired chops, and realized some of their yard sale LPs had more than camp value. It was all good natured, but most of the output blended those mid-century dance steps with contemporary guitar sounds, creating fusion as off-putting as watery funk-jazz and chili cookoff blues.

Dexter Romweber and Jim Heath got their skills well before the fads, and both possess talent to go with their primitivist impulses. As the leaders of the Flat Duo Jets and the Reverend Horton Heat, both opened for the Cramps on their early-'90s tours, but have since surpassed the psychobilly pioneers _ or at least put out more albums. And they were shrewd enough to sit out the marking blitz of the swing fad.

Or perhaps they were both just a tad nuts. Romweber was oddly silent during those days, and now he's thanking various pharmaceuticals in his liner notes. The Reverend Horton Heat put out Space Heater, a metallic mess of an album, and hopped on the Warped tour, underwhelming skaters while Pottery Barn customers rediscovered Louis Prima.

And while trashy, jazz-fueled rockabilly thrives on histrionics, it doesn't jive for Romweber and Heath any longer. As we inch closer to the mid-point of 2000s, the two trendsetters have put out their most sober and heartfelt records yet.

Romweber's Flat Duo Jets might have been the first power duo ever, discarding not just the bass, like the Cramps and Pussy Galore, but stripping down to just drums and a singing guitarist. It's become a viable, almost typical rock and roll line up in the last few years, but it was radical enough in 1990 that the Flat Duo Jets recorded their debut album with a bassist. Mono, live to tape, with an acoustic bass, but with a bassist nonetheless. That record featured a version of "Swing Swing Swing" that managed to evoke the whole of Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall arrangement, yet unmistakably iconoclastic. The whole record was magic, and Romweber's repeated the feat several times, most recently on the 2001 solo record Chased By Martians, which meshed Pete Towshend and Django Reinhardt in its twang punk mayhem.

Blues that Defies My Soul tones down the whirlwind, and rarely strays much from the 1950s styles at the core of rockabilly. But it has plenty of rowdy and thrilling moments: When the opener called for a squawking saxophone break, he found a kid from the local high school to lay it down.

What has always set Dexter apart is his ballads. Back when he was in Chapel Hill High himself, he was a weird kid who dug crooning as much as the rock. It's an affection that the times still haven't caught up with, a genuinely odd tangent from the scene. His music is spare by definition, and nowhere more so than in the slow songs. His voice is scruffy and low, but like Roy Orbison, he conveys deep sense of hurt. "Prison Called Life," the closer, has all the self-pity of Orbison, and a sense of experience that makes it one of the most convincing of his melodramas. Romweber's music has always been covered in cobwebs, but as he ages, the lonely songs get more and more lonesome.

The Reverend Horton Heat began as Jim Heath's stage persona. He's backed off from the mock preaching, though his records continue to exhibit a wise guy sense of humor. In many ways, he thinks in Nashville terms, more so than many of the alt-country acts, even. He's capable of playing as slickly as a session sideman. He's got a way with corny innuedo and wordplay. His albums have followed a formula as strict as a Nashville unit-shifter. There's the galloping instrumental introduction, a novelty song, a honky tonk number, a kitschy sexed-up ballad, something with a thrash tempo, and a rave-up closer with another instrumental break.

Revival doesn't change this approach, but it's the first record that, overall, feels serious. The punk tempo “Indigo Friends” is an ode to friends lost to drugs. It's got a riff that's so propulsive, it still seems short at four minutes. The title track is disparing, and hints at the religious, even if it bucks up and walks away from the revival tent.

There's a song to his mom, recently deceased, that swings awfully close to "Butterfly Kisses" territory. Something this heartfelt is confounding coming from the man who previously only got mushy about eating steak and learning to take sex slow. But there it is; he's sad dammit, and he's gonna get it out.

The record has a few pure rockabilly wing dings that don't do much. His heart isn't in it when he talks about going party mad. They're far less interesting than the dark songs. "We Belong Together" is another track that walks the line between sappy and haunting. Like Romweber, sadness that was previously an exercise in mood has become something integral to his sound. These guys are banged up.

By Ben Donnelly

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