Dan Auerbach, Dex Romweber Duo, Miranda Lee Richards, Jorma Kaukonen and More

Now it's raining releases, making it more difficult to decide what I have the time to cover here. I'd love to talk about every new CD that comes out every week, but with my other writing assignments and, well, a life, that is more than impractical - it’s

Feb 13, 2009 at 2:06 pm

And now it’s raining releases, which is making it more difficult to decide what I have the time to cover here. I’d love to talk about every new release that comes out every week, but with my other writing assignments and, well, a life, that is more than impractical — it’s impossible. But even as the weekly release schedule begins to swell to gargantuan proportions, I will be covering every disc that time and circumstance will allow.

First up in Reviewdome this week is Keep It Hid, the debut album from Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. One might wonder what would compel a member of a two-man group to go the solo route, and in Auerbach’s case, it would seem to be the opportunity to work with more musicians than himself and Keys drummer Patrick Carney.

Keep It Hid’s opener, “Trouble Weighs a Ton,” seems to indicate that Auerbach is looking to scale back from the Keys’ contemporary Blues Garage stomp, offering up a melancholy acoustic Country Blues hymn about the burdens of modern life (which sound suspiciously like humanity’s burdens from time immemorial). But then Auerbach lurches into “I Want Some More,” a fuzzed-out psychedelic Soul/Blues tribal chant that sounds like Blue Cheer channeling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and it’s clear that the guitarist is substantially broadening his Blues vocabulary with his solo bow.

There is a wide range of styles on Keep It Hid, sometimes within a single song. “Whispered Words,” a song written by Auerbach’s father, begins as a sparse and quiet Blues-tinged ’50s Pop trifle (albeit with lyrics that seem to be about love’s sweet murmurings and morph into an ode to the inner voices of despair and paranoia) and builds to a thundering Garage epic finish. That segues seamlessly into the shimmery Gospel Blues fuzz-and-fringe of “Real Desire,” which gives way to the acoustic Mellotron-shaded balladry of “When the Night Comes,” featuring vocals from Jessica Lea Mayfield, whose 2008 debut was produced by Auerbach.

Keep It Hid is by no means a huge departure from the Black Keys’ modus operandi, it’s simply an expansion of its mission statement. Auerbach embraces every kind of Blues on Keep It Hid and takes his game a slight step above the two-man fury he generates with Carney in the Keys. If you’re already a Keys fan, prepare to fall ever deeper under Dan Auerbach’s basement Blues spell.

Next in the pile is Ruins of Berlin, the latest offering from the Dex Romweber Duo. Twenty-plus years ago, guitarist Dexter Romweber and drummer Crow Smith hammered out the blueprint for rollicking, stripped-down Blues twosomes with Flat Duo Jets. After all the accolades laid at the altar of Jack White, the White Stripes guitarist has graciously soapboxed for Romweber, claiming him as a direct influence and using his own broad popularity to shine a light on Romweber’s undeserved obscurity.

Romweber dissolved the Jets a decade ago to record under his own name, but for Ruins of Berlin he returns as the Dex Romweber Duo with his renowned sister Sara, who drummed for Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active and was a founding member of Snatches of Pink. With that spooky sibling connection, the Duo’s sound isn’t so much a matter of Dex following Sara’s beat as it is an inextricable linking of the two players and their instruments, as if Sara’s drums were being generated from somewhere deep inside Dex’s guitar.

Like Dan Auerbach, Dex Romweber appreciates a broad spectrum of his chosen idiom, from Delta to Country to Blues to carnival Jazz to Punkabilly to bruised Surf Rock, and Ruins of Berlin examines it all. The Romwebers tear through the Rockabilly Horror Pop of “Lookout,” the Country Blues swoon of “Lover’s Gold” and the cracked Surf/noir Jazz giddiness of “Cigarette Party” with similarly inspired but broadly executed motivations. Dex has always been a master song stylist, choosing amazingly specific covers and twisting them inexorably into his own unique musical shape. This time around, he does it most convincingly with the title track, a Teutonic ode given dark life by Marlene Dietrich and turned into a Southern Gothic Rockabilly chicken-wire ballad.

Dexter Romweber‘s name on the cover should be enough to draw the converted, but for those who need a little more enticement to brave the unknown, Ruins of Berlin offers a handful of guests that will have the uninitiated taking notice. Southern Culture on the Skids frontman Rick Miller, long a supporter of FDJ and Romweber, helps out on “Lookout,” while Dex shares the mic with a trio of Indie Rock marquee names — Cat Power on “Love Letters,” Neko Case on “Still Around” and the ultrafabulous Exene Cervenka on “Lonesome Train.” In the end, though, all you really need to know to compel you to experience Ruins of Berlin is right there at the top of the bill: Dex Romweber.

Eight years ago, Miranda Lee Richards released her astonishing debut, The Herethereafter, to a cynical, just barely post-9/11 world that somehow didn’t understand her contemporary spin on ’60s Psychedelia and Folk, taking her cues from The Stones, The Doors, Nick Drake and the Mamas and the Papas. I fell hard for the album — released late in the year, it easily made my Top 10 of 2001 — and her incredible backstory (daughter of underground cartoonists, took guitar lessons from Kirk Hammett as a teenager, professional modeling career, sang with the Brian Jonestown Massacre). To this day, I have two copies of The Herethereafter; one for home, one for the car. And anytime I see a copy of her album in the used bins, I buy it and give it to a friend. Once I bought one then turned around and gave it to the guy who was beside me at the counter, based on things he’d said to his friend in line.

The only thing missing in this tale is the triumphant follow-up, the stunning sophomore album that puts the debut in context and makes late believers of the early doubters. That is precisely the album that Richards wanted to make, but she was more than willing to take her time to get everything exactly right. The fact that music from The Herethereafter was licensed close to 40 times for movies and TV gave Richards the economic padding she needed to take her time and craft the perfect complement to her debut. Light of X proves that the past eight years were well worth the wait.

Beginning where she left off on The Herethereafter, Richards eases into Light of X with “Breathless,” a gorgeous piano ballad that effortlessly reprises her debut’s stunningly hushed closer, “The Landscape,” based on a poem by Baudelaire. Richards intones emotionally, “Before I met you, my life was a series of chances/Before I met you, my mind it was racing all the time,” accompanied by a soundtrack that would make Fleetwood Mac green with Pop envy. Drawing on many of the same influences as she relied on for The Herethereafter, Richards invests Light of X with a psychedelic SoCal cowgirl vibe, from the shimmering and ethereally grounded “Lifeboat” to the Cowboy Junkies moan of “Mirror at the End.” At the same time, she deftly channels a little Sarah McLachlan Pop into “Hideaway” and casts a darker Nick Cave pall over “Early November,” at least until brightening slightly for the jangly chorus.

Light of X doesn’t represent a giant leap forward for Richards, but her debut was so quietly brilliant it wouldn’t make sense for her to depart too far from its soaring example. The pedal steel touches are nice and producer/paramore Rick Parker’s guitars are as evocative and atmospheric as last time, but the twin centerpieces of Light of X are Richards’ soul-stirring songs and her crystalline voice. Here’s hoping that minds and ears are a little more open in 2009 (and a hopeful wish to Richards that we won’t be praising her third album in 2017).

The one constant in Jorma Kaukonen’s long and storied career has been the fact that he’s never been classifiable within any style that he's played and mastered. When he played Rock guitar with Jefferson Airplane, he never quite synced up with the accepted Rock standards of the time. When he played Blues with Hot Tuna, his version of the Blues existed outside of the genre's recognized parameters. And throughout his solo career, Kaukonen has illuminated the unexplored edges of Folk, Gospel, Country and Rock, all in a quietly jaw-dropping fingerstyle that he has perfected and passes along at his Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp just north of here.

On Kaukonen’s latest solo album, River of Time, the master guitarist revisits the soaring Folk/Blues spirit of his debut solo album, 1974’s Quah, and effortlessly recaptures its soul-lifting essence. He remains one of the foremost contemporary translators of Delta Blues giants like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis, here offering magnificent takes on “Preachin’ on the Old Camp Ground” and “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere,” respectively. And while Kaukonen’s genius for inhabiting the songs of others and shapeshifting them into his inimitable style is on full display on River of Time (the Delmore Brothers’ “Nashville Blues,” The Grateful Dead’s “Operator”), his own songwriting has never been sharper and more powerful, from the soulful Blues scrapbook of “Cracks in the Finish” to the jaunty Country Blues of the title track to the breathtakingly gorgeous instrumental “Izze’s Lullabye.” Produced by Larry Campbell and featuring occasional drums by the legendary Levon Helm, River of Time may stand as one of the finest gems in Jorma Kaukonen’s already dazzling catalog.

By the most ironic coincidence occurred just over a week ago. I was going though a box of cassettes (much as my editor and pal Mike Breen detailed in an essay last week) and came across a mix tape I’d made back in the late ’80s. In those days, I was like Johnny Mixtapeseed, distributing music via cassette compilations that I recorded by the metric ton. I made a good many for family and friends, but just as often I made them for myself for the car/boombox/office.

The one I unearthed was of the latter variety. For reasons lost in the mist of time, I titled it “Head and Legs Sold Separately,” and it was a 100-minute compendium of a few new and old favorites. As soon as I pulled the tape out, I knew the song that I would have to hear, so I popped it in the Bunker boombox and cued up “Jackyard Backoff” by The Cramps, a tub-thumping Psychobilly howler from the B-side of the “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns” 12-inch.

I rewound and played it three times before coming to the foregone conclusion that I would have to scrounge the racks until I came across A Date With Elvis, The Cramps’ typically twisted 1986 full-length and one of my favorites from the mid-’80s. Although I absolutely love the band’s earliest output (Gravest Hits, Psychedelic Jungle, Songs the Lord Taught Us), there is something trashily compelling about Elvis, from the Middle Eastern sleaze of “Kizmiaz” to the hiccuping psychosis of “People Ain’t No Good” to the high beautiful camp of “Hot Pearl Snatch” and “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?”

The earlier Cramps may have been rawer and more immediate, but Elvis was brilliant in its tarted-up whorishness, like a pretty skank who was oversexed, overdressed and overly made-up … and knew it. The Cramps weren’t selling out on Elvis, they were laughing at their own broad stab at accessibility, starting with the album’s first track, “How Far Can Too Far Go?” That is a question that The Cramps asked themselves and their audience constantly over the course of their three-decade career. And the answer always seemed to be “As far as you want to take us.”

In hip-hugging spandex that rode just north of his South Pole, going down on microphones, dry humping stages and gyrating in a manner that made Elvis Presley seem like the Archbishop of Canterbury by comparison, Lux Interior had no earthly concept of limits. “How Far Can Too Far Go?” was at best a rhetorical question; “too far” were lyrics that he sang, but it was not a phrase that fit anywhere in Lux’s delightfully vulgar lexicon.

Sadly, Lux’s all too fragile human heart was well aware of what constituted “too far,” and last Thursday made the point with a sickening finality. So when the news had finally sunk in that Lux was off to the boneyard he had so often sung about, I retrieved my newly burnt copy of A Date With Elvis and cranked up the most appropriate track I could imagine to usher Lux to his rightful place among the Choir Invisible: “Gonna take a week off/ Gonna go to Hell/ Send ya a postcard/ Hey I’m doin’ swell/ Wish you were here here/ Aloha from Hell.”

My guess is that the Devil kicked Lux’s ass straight back up to Heaven so he could maintain some decorum (and he was probably afraid of getting Frenched and looking like a prude in front of the damned), and God is clearly not ready for a Heaven that can accommodate leather wings and a leopard skin spandex robe. While the negotiations between Heaven and Hell continue, Lux is languishing in some dark corner of limbo, and it is most certain that his pussy is doing a little something called The Dog.