Texas women scare me. They put on make up to go to the grocery store. They wear three-inch heels to football games. They'll call you honey one minute, cut you off in traffic the next, then steal your boyfriend without batting a heavily mascara'd eyelash. They are dangerous, fascinating creatures, and they are at the center of Southern Backtones' excellent second album, The Formula
The Southern Backtones are a Houston-based band, led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Hank Schyma, with Mykel Foster on bass and keys and Mike Blattel playing drums. But while the trio is from Texas, and its subject matter has the unmistakable whiff of the New South, there is nothing southern about their sound. Forget Duane and Dicky; Southern Backtones blend creepy, noirish scenarios with a Manchester buzz, recalling the Manic Street Preachers on some tracks, the Buzzcocks on others. It's fashionable now for bands to claim Joy Division's influence -- and mostly it's crap -- but tracks like "Façade" almost capture that band's claustrophobic edge. The track drives hard with bass, then backs all the way to the edge with its obsessive, soft-porn rant about an inaccessible woman (his lawyer? his shrink? hard to tell). Listen to the tune, then to Joy Division's "She's Lost Control", and then you can just drive your car over the bridge, because it's clearly all over.
It's not all 24-Hour Party People, however. You can hear a fair dose of old Texas in the Spanish-flavored cuts, particularly "Sinful Refrain" and "Drive Under the Moon". "Sinful Refrain" opens with mariachi-style trumpets and a shuffling beat, then belies this traditional sound with lyrics about off-limits lust. "Drive Under the Moon" blends slowed-down surf guitars with Leonard Cohenesque insinuating vocals.
The standout cuts are all about women, and they are, to a one, excruciatingly honest, painful portraits of falsity and heartbreak. "Glamour Whore" is a dead-on portrait of social striving, the tale of a young woman who gives up her real self for status, ending up "a knock-off thrill in designer heels." In the album closer, "Make-Up", Schyma sketches a drunken walk home with a Texas princess who pauses to fix her make-up. In a frightening mixture of familiarity with the routine and scorn, he asks "How many hours spend concealing unbecoming blemishes, burying acne scars in the foundation, penciling outside the lips for fuller lips" -- and then, devastatingly, "By the way, you wear too much make-up."
The show-stopping track, however, is "The Formula", a blow-by-blow account of a relationship breaking up. Like the couple in question, it starts calm, with staccato guitar and easy vocals. Gradually the anger picks up, along with the volume, until Schyma is screaming unpardonable things over a deafening wall of guitar and bass.
The Formula's cover art shows two women in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof slips making up in front of a mirror. They are lovely, but there's something cold in their eyes, something ungenerous in their posture. Southern Backtones stares right back at them, creating an album as dark and dangerous and snakily unblinking as its subject matter. It's quite a feat -- and one that makes Southern Backtones a band to watch.