Recordings

Flat Duo Jets
Lucky Eye
(Outpost Recordings)

The Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Flat Duo Jets have been bringing their stripped-down brand of southern roots music on the road for nearly 15 years. The duo of guitarist/vocalist Dexter Romweber and drummer Crow has earned a reputation as an intense and exciting live act.

With an incendiary musical approach, and vocals that owe as much to Tom Waits as to Gene Vincent, the group developed a style that seemed to translate better in a live setting than on any of its eight indie releases.

Enter former R.E.M. and Replacements producer Scott Litt. He was so impressed after catching the band in the act that he promptly signed it to his newly formed Geffen imprint, Outpost Recordings. Along with co-producer Chris Stamey (of dB's and Golden Palominos fame), Litt began recording the band at the famed Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama.

The result of those efforts is Lucky Eye, an 18-song collection that should be the envy of every roots-rock band on the planet. Coloring their uniquely primitive style with bass, horns and a 12-piece string section, the Flat Duo Jets have finally succeeded in making a record as immediate and compelling as one of their live shows.

While it's not unfair to characterize the duo as a rockabilly act, it's always approached the form in a different way from a group as purely derivative as the Stray Cats, for example. Romweber and Crow are less likely to imitate than to try to tap into the wild-man elements that make the genre so compelling to begin with. That, along with a strict adherence to a primitive garage aesthetic, is what's separated them from other neo-traditionalists treading the lines of swing, surf and rockabilly.

Although Lucky Eye is certainly more polished and adventurous than any of its previous albums, the duo has managed to leave its patented brand of retro-thrash intact. Songs like "Hot Rod Baby" and "Blues Wrapped Around My Head" confirm that the jump to a major label hasn't taken the edge off Romweber's possessed vocals or frenzied guitar style.

At the same time, the acoustic swing of "String Along" or the pop-laden hooks of "Hustle n' Bustle" showcase a level of depth absent from any of the band's previous efforts. Ample credit needs to be given to Litt and Stamey for bringing out the band's more subtle side. It's an element that's especially strong on the album's six instrumental cuts, including the jazzy "New York Studio 1959" and the surf-tinged "California Luau."

Ultimately, the Duo Jets' ability to navigate between the frenetic rock of the title track and the plaintive balladry of a song like "Lonely Guy" is what makes this such a special record.

--Bob Mehr

Dolly Parton
Hungry Again
(Decca Records)

As hard as it is to believe today, Dolly Parton once had credibility. Not urban street cred, but mountain cred. She lived the life of the rural poor and longed for a wider horizon. Yet her desire for a better life didn't keep her from celebrating the simplicity of her roots. Check out "My Tennessee Mountain Home," for example. Her songs gained strength by maintaining a connection to the mountain soil and people.

When she decided to opt out of country and plunge into pop music in the late '70s, the archetypal drama and tension of songs like "Jolene" vanished from her work. Instead, she offered the bland sentiments of "Here You Come Again" and the paint-by-numbers everywoman of "Nine to Five." All that was left of Dolly, it seemed, was a big-busted caricature in huge wigs. This translated, though, into greater show-biz success than she ever could have known in the then-insular country-music world.

With Hungry Again, Parton becomes a penitent in sackcloth and ashes (or, more accurately, denim bib overalls), trying to reconnect with her past to refuel her songwriting.

Parton, who wrote all 12 tunes here, opens the title song by singing, "The thrill, the desire, the excitement is gone/We seem to have found a safe comfort zone." She actually seems to mean it, and the acoustic arrangement highlights her earnest voice, breathlessly yearning for what's been lost.

Elsewhere, Parton does her best to prove you can go home again and even does a fair update of "My Tennessee Mountain Home" called "I Wanna Go Back There." She finds the high lonesome sound of the Appalachians, forsaking slick pop production values for mandolins, Dobros, banjos, upright basses, close harmonies and pedal steel.

Even when she kicks up some electric energy with "The Salt of My Tears," "Honky Tonk Songs" and "The Camel's Heart," the music seems to come from another time and place.

Mostly, the album is the sound of a middle-aged star taking stock now that trends have passed her by. When Parton tells the story of a singer much like herself in "Blue Valley Songbird," the key difference is that "she's never made it" but still keeps singing. Parton may well wonder whether she'd have had the same persistence if she hadn't made the big time by now.

Despite all her nostalgia, the truest words here are in "I Still Lost You." Parton tells an ex-lover who wants to get back together: "What we had then, we don't have now."

Well, what Parton had then, she doesn't have now. She's no longer the young woman fresh from the hills. However, Hungry Again proves she's not just the caricature, either.

--Salvatore Caputo

 
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