Southern Backtones, La Vie En Noir
Unlike a lot of albums I’ve heard lately, the Southern Backtones’ La Vie En Noir doesn’t barrel into the room with a crash, grabbing hold of you and forcing you to listen. Rather, they’re like a sneakily low-key band that’s already there, already playing when you get to some nameless bar you’ve never been to before, most likely on the shady side of the city, someplace you wouldn’t ordinarily go to alone.
They’re just up there on the stage, playing these seemingly innocuous songs, just kind of in the background, so you settle in at a table and watch the other people in the room mingle and move about. After you’ve been there for a little while, though, it hits you that the lower-down, lizard part of your brain has been focused on the band the whole time, unconsciously paying attention, and suddenly you realize, holy crap, these guys are good.
With La Vie En Noir, it’s less about the songs themselves, honestly, than it is about the overall feel of the album. Going back to that dimly-lit, nameless bar, if you were watching some dark, noir-ish film where bad things are almost certainly right around the corner. And this band, they’re the soundtrack to all that. The music the Backtones make is alluring and menacing at the same time, dwelling in some in-between twilight place where things sound like everyday rock but definitely aren’t. They’re dark and alien, particularly on tracks like “Dive-Disco Misfits,” which calls to mind Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, or the low-voiced stomp of “Ex-Girlfriend.”
Then there’s the road-movie tinge to the whole thing, a windswept, gritty vibe that’s Western without the “country” part that, when paired with singer/guitarist Hank Schyma’s husky baritone, makes the band come off like Johnny Cash fronting the Cowboy Junkies, or maybe Urge Overkill with less of the Vegas glitter on their guitars. Songs like “Crossed The Line,” “The Signs,” and “Bandera” are moody and stark, grim and vaguely threatening, and Schyma and company play them effortlessly, like they’ve never done anything else.
Not that they’re tied to that particular niche, mind you. “Call Off Your Dogs (Lux Version)” is rougher and more flat-out rawk, with the band barreling straight down some grimy alleyway as Schyma croons and grunts, Elvis-style. Opener “Slumber Party” is an oddball, as well, all weirdly funky and bumping, with a surf-y guitar line reminiscent of the Blondie classic “Atomic,” and it makes me feel a little dirty, for some reason, just listening to it (maybe it’s the line about “ripening,” I dunno).
By La Vie En Noir‘s end, the Backtones have fulfilled the promise of the album’s title, creating not just a set of songs but a vibrantly dark whole other world for you to step inside like that aforementioned movie. You don’t know where you’re going to end up, and odds are you might not make it out alive, but hell, it’ll definitely be a fun, wild ride.