In 2004, Houston’s Southern Backtones released a self-titled EP that marked a radical shift in the band’s sound. Originally a rockabilly project–with a fairly rabid fanbase–the Backtones instead channeled glam-era Bowie and late-80s college rock, alienating some fans but gaining many more in the process. In the years since the last release, other than the occasional single, the band has been mostly quiet, honing new songs, chasing storms, and finishing up 2011’s Honky Tonk Blood film. Given the band’s previous dramatic change, it should come as no surprise that La Vie En Noir brings another departure in styles and sound.
Singer/guitarist Hank Schyma’s deep and sexy vocals are in full effect on the new album, but it’s the music that again is the major difference. Full of spaghetti western influences–with the requisite hints of glam–La Vie En Noir is a dark, mind-altered trip through windy country roads and out of the way, Tarentino-esque dive bars. Southern Backtones’ music seems a perfect soundtrack for these types of experiences, and songs like “Bandera” (moody, country-tinged) and “Dive Disco Misfits” (glam rock) best demonstrate the extreme range of the band’s influences.
That’s not to say that Schyma and company are confused about the band’s direction. Far from it. The Backtones’ frontman has had these songs in his head for years, and with line-up shifts, the movie, and life in general, these things take time to make. Lyrically, Schyma mixes late-night drama, heartbreak (such as on the impressive “She Crossed The Line”), and road trips into a palatable mix of songs that, while most definitely varied, manages to work as a cohesive unit.
“Call Off Your Dogs,” a live staple and long-time fan favorite from early album Los Tormentos De Amor, and “Dirty” (from the band’s last album), both get unnecessary remix treatments on La Vie En Noir. While it’s easy to understand why Schyma might feel the need to update his old rockabilly tune to the newer sound, the song was fine as-is. “Dirty”–without a doubt a great song–almost seems a bit too clean here. However, these are minor missteps on an otherwise impressive album, and regardless, listeners new to the Backtones won’t know the difference.
Southern Backtones plays in Houston this Saturday (5.12.12) at 3:30pm at the 2nd Annual Haute Wheels Houston Houston food truck festival, held at HCC Southwest West Loop Campus.