By John DeFore
Although you wouldn't know it from some recent responses to the White Stripes and Black Keys, the two-person rock band is not a new phenomenon. Rhino Handmade has just released proof in the form of two reissues from L.A.'s House of Freaks, a guitar-and-drum duo who were famous for sounding like a "real" band when they played live.
The late- '80sdiscs, Monkey on a Chain Gang and Tantilla (available through rhinohandmade.com) are generous even by Rhino's standards: Tacking EPs, live recordings, B-sides and unreleased stuff onto each album, they double the number of tracks on the original LPs and push the CD format's maximum length. It's a great way to be introduced to Johnny Hott and Brian Harvey, two high-energy peddlers of post-punk roots music.
Around the same time on the other side of the continent, the Flat Duo Jets were getting their own two-guy rawk thing started. They lasted longer than the Freaks but split up in 1998, leaving leader Dexter Romweber to go it alone; his new Blues that Defy My Soul (Yep Roc) may sport a full three-piece band, but it has the same raw energy that made Dex's earlier band such an inspiration to Jack White. It has a sense of humor, too, about its own retro stylings: "I've Lost My Heart To You" may be a sincere ballad, but Romweber's full-throated croon sounds a little self-consciously goofy as it tries to cram too many syllables into a verse; he can't give in to straight mimicry, and his music is better for it.
The Proclaimers aren't a two-person band, but image-wise they may as well be. The two nerdy looking Scottish twins are, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, not dead; Born Innocent, on their own Persevere Records, is another fine album from a group that will always toil in the shadow of the surprise hit "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" (you know it: "aye wood walk fiyve hoondred miles and aye wood walk fiyve hoondred moor..."). Born Innocent may not contain a hook as overpowering as that one, but it offers a wide range of good material, from the angry pub rock of "Blood on Your Hands" to the soulful harmonies of "You Meant it Then."
In the world of electronica, there are more two-person teams than you can throw a Moog at. There are the ones who draw huge crowds live, like Air, whose recent Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks) soothed doubts that they had lost touch for good with the art-damaged 10,000 Hz Legend. Or Thievery Corporation, whose cutely titled new DJ set The Outernational Sound arrives later this month from Eighteenth Street Lounge Music.
Then there are the under-the-radar remixers like Two Lone Swordsmen, who get hired to slice and dice tracks by Starsailor, Primal Scream, and Calexico, and then get to compile the results on discs like Peppered with Spastic Magic (RGC), which boils over with little bubbly reincarnations of tunes you could never identify without the liner notes. (Calexico, by the way, just issued Convict Pool - a great EP on Quarterstick that features their take on the Minutemen favorite "Corona.")
Finally, we have a duo making stuff on the fringe of what I'd call music, although that doesn't mean I don't like it. Teargas & Plateglass work the "illbient" side of the electronica field on their self-titled debut (Waxploitation), which is to say that they craft textures that are less geared toward Zen meditation and massage therapy than the average ambient soundscape. It's creepy, is another way of saying it - stuff that might be playing in a Blade Runner dentist's office. Menacing metallic clangs and degraded string sections lumber behind drum loops; tiny bells chime under 20,000 fathoms of chemically tainted ocean. Don't look for it on the Billboard Top 100 any time soon, but don't be surprised to see T&P scoring the next post-apocalyptic fantasy that hits a theater near you.
By John DeFore