By all outward appearances, Dexter Romweber is a man out of time.
For his guitar, he favors the Silvertone 1448, which was manufactured between 1962 and 1966. The guitars were made from scrap wood and Masonite, molded into a flowing, curvilinear Art Deco body with a swoopy headstock. They were small, about three-quarters the size of a standard guitar, and light, weighing a hair over five pounds. Most had but one low-output lipstick-tube pickup and came with a guitar case that featured a built-in amplifier. They sold, at Sears, for about $67.
Romweber’s played them since his earliest days with Flat Duo Jets, the seminal psychobilly twosome with whom he first rose to prominence. He played a 1448 during the Duo Jets’ appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in 1990, Romweber’s closest brush with mainstream success.
What: Dex Romweber Duo
Where: Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St.
When: Saturday, May 10, 9 p.m.
With: Los Perdidos, Thee Knee Jerks
Price: $12 ($10 advance)
More Info: conundrum.us
“They’re really not too clean,” Romweber says when reached at his home in Mebane, N.C. “They’re like blues guitars or something. You see blues guitarists playing them. They really have the coolest sound, and they were inexpensive, too.”
Nowadays, well-kept models can fetch nearly $800 on eBay. But the reason Romweber prefers them isn’t for their retro value. He simply loves their sound — a raw, bassy tone that Romweber describes as organ-like.
“They were made during the time when The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond were being made,” he laughs. “They really have that kind of feel about ‘em, that look and that sound from that really wild era of culture.”
Over the course of a quarter century, first with Flat Duo Jets and currently with his sister, Sara, in the Dex Romweber Duo, the guitarist has mined that culture for an idiomatic sound that touches on a host of proto-rock ‘n’ roll sounds rooted mainly in the ’50s, but occasionally sliding all the way back to the ’40s.
But Romweber’s aims aren’t retro. The songs on Images 13, the duo’s latest longplayer, are imbued not with a sense of nostalgia, but a sense of timelessness. Stylistically, the album is all over the map: Dex’s guttural snarls pierce the rusty switchblade strut of “Roll On”; his soft, lonesome croon carries the spectral ballad “Baby I Know What It’s Like to Be Alone.” Sara’s whipping snare rolls propel the amphetamine-surf workout “Blue Surf”; her soft mallet work underscores the tender “We’ll Be Together Again,” a cover of an obscure song written after the death of Eddie Cochran, one of Dex’s favorite musicians.
“Blackout!” re-imagines the Peter Gunn theme as a cool, noir-colored instrumental, while a version of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” offers a sunny, mod-rock counterpoint.
The record even references Dex Romweber’s favorite sci-fi television show, One Step Beyond: “Weird (Aurora Borealis)” is the duo’s take on Harry Lubin’s original theme for the show’s far-out moments.
“I mean, it’s a six-minute song and it’s an orchestral song, but we condensed it down to this slightly rock ‘n’ roll duo kinda thing,” Romweber laughs.
Images 13 is far and away the duo’s most versatile offering to date, but the songs never feel like rote genre exercises. It’s just the Romweber siblings doing what comes naturally.
“We both decided that we didn’t want to be another retro rockabilly band,” Romweber says. “It was important that we add different styles.”
As the barn-burning forebear to every two-piece garage-punk outfit out there, Dex has been doing for decades the same crash-bang guitar-and-drums thing that Jack White and The Black Keys piloted to chart-topping success, and that current acolytes Japandroids and Ty Segall mine for critical cachet. He and his sister, though, sound much better doing it. And if it sounds, from time to time, like a throwback, it isn’t. It just isn’t of its time.
“There’s a line in a Johnny Cash song that says, ‘Born a hundred years too late, and two hundred years too soon,’” Romweber says, reciting part of “The Folk Singer.” “I’ve really always felt like that.”
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