On 2009’s Ruins of Berlin, Dexter Romweber downplayed his massive influence on the contemporary rock scene by focusing more heavily on moody, introspective songs than on the breakneck blues that characterized his work with Flat Duo Jets and which has been an incalculable point of reference for acts like the Black Keys and the Kills. Romweber’s follow-up, Is That You in the Blue?, is something of an about-face; teeming with raucous energy and steeped in blues formalism, the album finds the Dex Romweber Duo (Dexter and his percussionist sister, Sara) assessing the sound of Flat Duo Jets’s direct descendants and then pushing it forward.
Is That You in the Blue? isn’t simply a record of the kind of music that made Romweber a hero to the likes of Jack White and Dan Auerbach during their formative years. Romweber challenges himself here in both his songwriting and arrangements, and the result is a blues album full of idiosyncrasies and purposeful risks. “Jungle Drums” opens the album with Romweber unleashing a primal growl over a ferocious drum line and blistering electric guitar solo by Rick Miller (of Southern Culture on the Skids), who also produced the set. The song’s lyrics may read like those of a vintage ‘50s pop tune (“Jungle drums are beatin’ right outside my door/Rockin’ to the rhythm, 1-2-3-4”), but the arrangement is demon-possessed rockabilly.
The otherworldly tone of the album doesn’t let up. Miller takes the heavy reverb and multi-tracking of modern rock production to such an extreme degree on “The Death of Me” that Sara’s two-step drumming becomes one long blur and Dexter sounds like he’s singing from inside a coffin. He uses a similar wash on “Nowhere,” giving the song a structurally right sense of displacement. But disorienting reverb isn’t Miller’s only production trick, and tracks like “I Wish You Would” and “Redemption” place Romweber’s innovative blues-guitar licks in the foreground, emphasizing their unconventional form.
What makes Romweber such a compelling bluesman is that he doesn’t fetishize his intuitive grasp of the genre’s formal conventions the way Jack White often does. Instead, he uses that know-how as a jumping-off point for explorations of classic pop structures and jazz-like improvisations. A brief reprised version of “I Wish You Would” transforms the song into a swinging little number that impresses for how light and nimble it is, while instrumental “Gurdjieff Girl” proves how well the massive riffs of surf-rock lend themselves to modern production techniques. Every arrangement on the album bears out Romweber’s thoughtful, fearless approach.
That Sara is far more than merely capable as a drummer helps too, as does Miller’s instincts for blending the retro with the contemporary. If the specifics of Romweber’s vocal turns are occasionally obscured by all of the reverb (it’s tough to make out the lyrics on the title track and the country-inflected “Homicide”), the album more than makes up for it in its consistent tone. Is That You in the Blue? is the kind of freewheeling, creative rock record that should make Romweber a key influence on yet another generation.