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Flat Duo Jets - Two Headed Cow

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Artist: Flat Duo Jets

Album: Two Headed Cow

Label: Chicken Ranch

Review date: Feb. 22, 2008

Turns out their approach was ahead of their time, even if they sounded way behind it. Just out of their teens, and drifting between Athens and Chapel Hill in the ’80s, Flat Duo Jets played scorching, sweet rockabilly. It didn't lump together easily with the other rock in the New South, mostly cosmopolitan bands bent on intricate jangle and lateral thinking. Dexter Romweber and Chris “Crow” Smith were two high school friends dedicated to whacking hard on the earliest phase of rock 'n' roll, when it was still wet with the swing and sentimentality of the jazz era.

Their music wasn't completely frozen in the past. Like the noisier batch of their contemporaries, they sped along at punk tempos, howling with enough distortion and echo that the overtones created the feel of extra instruments. Which was important, because their live sound was built on nothing but pawn-shop drums and a beat-up Sears guitar. When they recorded their first album, live to tape, even they were sheepish about the lack of low end, and a standup bassist subsequently joined them for the session.

The self-titled debut took a few years to get issued, showing up on shelves in 1990. They opened for the Cramps around that time, got on Letterman one night, and continued to fill out their sound in the studio, culminating in 1998's Lucky Eye, which sported ballads with big ’60s-pop string arrangements between the hyperactive twang. The exposure was there, but the duo’s sound never caught on.

Which was a shame, but not a surprise. Romweber wasn't just a fan of the rockabilly wildmen; like Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis, his eccentricities teetered into instability. He didn't just hone his craft in the woodshed; as a teen, he literally lived in a woodshed. Unlike other revivalists, he threw himself into to ballads with as much gusto as he did the rockers, without ironic distance. It remains hard to distinguish between the originals and remakes in the Jets' catalog – the romantic crooners are full of flowery sweet-nothings and the C&W ballads are drenched in self-pity - and all of it is devoid of camp. Not that they were above the occasional song about little green men, but as the ’90s wore on, it looked as though Romweber was sincere about the UFOs, too.

Their story recently got the documentary treatment with the movie Two Headed Cow by Tony Gayton, and the band got a new album out of the deal. The film’s soundtrack, on Chicken Ranch Records, was assembled from the live video footage, and it captures the Jets in a variety of different settings. For their more typical numbers, “Crow” would get a rumbling Gene Krupa beat going, laying out the launching pad for Romweber's reveries. "Tidalwave" is the best example here, bouncing between stabby surf riffs and tense chords, and resolving on a clean and cheerful jazz scale. "Golden Strings" is a fine demonstration of their balladry. Built on "Blue Moon" arpeggios, they cycle through the verse three times before bringing in the vocals. On each pass it changes - from gentle, to triumphant, to sad, to satisfied.

In the late ’90s, Dex and Crow had a falling out and went their separate ways. It was right around the time that two fans in Detroit got up the nerve to try the guitar+drums duo themselves. Jack and Meg White soon took full advantage of the configuration: gear that could fit into something smaller than a geriatric Econoline van; a guitar not worth a thief's effort; a sound that could deliver full effect with a flimsy mixing board or impromptu stage. And it's still sounds good as a low-rate mp3. Dexter has gone on to play with his real-life sister, and with larger line-ups, and still delivers curveballs like Pete Townshend covers and pastiches of classical piano études.

The rock 'n' roll duo schtick is here to stay. But few have surpassed what Flat Duo Jets laid down first.

By Ben Donnelly

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