Ha Ha Tonka – Death of a Decade

January 01, 1970





With too many nods to traditions to fit the indie rock
template, and too many ambitious sonic explorations to be alt-country, Ha Ha
Tonka continues to mine its own unique territory amid the foothills of
contemporary rock. The band hails from Springfield,
MO, where there is a state park
called Ha Ha Tonka, home of what’s left of a stone mansion which suffered a
major fire back in the 1940s.  Finding
grace out of ruins is at least an acceptable metaphor to begin talking about Ha
Ha Tonka the band.


Death of a Decade is the third album these guys have released since changing their name from
Amsterband and working with Bloodshot Records to achieve a wider release for
their music back in 2007. It’s probably slightly less ambitious than 2009’s
concept-rich Novel Sounds of the Nouveau
, but the band’s penchant for intensely oblique songcraft remains just
as strong.


For a four-piece band that has all but abandoned keyboards
to go to a two-guitar, bass, drum alignment, Ha Ha Tonka achieves a staggering
amount of sonic variety across the eleven songs included here. They go to a
mandolin on a couple of songs, but beyond that, Brett Anderson and Brian
Roberts use different combinations of acoustic and electric guitars to create
significantly differing textures, and drummer Lennon Bone along with bassist
Lucas Long seem incapable of falling into any hackneyed rhythm patterns. Vocal
harmonies behind Roberts can range from one shadowing part to full four-part
chords without ever becoming showy or overpowering. This is also a band which
realizes dynamics can range between very quiet and very loud without forgetting
all the steps in between.


Highlights of Death of a Decade include opening cut “Usual
Suspects,” which has the nerve to start with a ringing guitar chord which
pretty much exactly replicates the beginning of “Substitute” by the Who before
launching into a delicious mandolin lick and Roberts’ melodic vocal
incantations. “Made Example Of” contains what might be the band’s credo: “They
say if you don’t change where you’re going / You’re gonna end up right where
you’re headed.” Roberts finds new inflections every time he repeats this line,
as the harmonies simply ride it out beneath him.


“Problem Solver” just might be the finest song on the
record. Anderson
picks some luscious acoustic guitar lines to set the stage, then Roberts leads
the band in a stomp to try to figure out why that girl wants to solve his
problems. The backing vocals offer responses of encouragement combined with
questioning, and it seems ultimately the best answer which can be found is that
she is who she is – her identity is that of problem solver.


The album ends with another powerhouse cut, “The Humorist,”
which references Mark Twain, though it doesn’t really seem to be about him.
(One has to consider the possibility, though, as Ha Ha Tonka have explored Missouri connections on
their previous records.) Whatever it’s concerning, it’s a corker of a song,
mixing tradition-mining guitar licks from folk and rock, and a rhythm feel that
calls jazz fusion to mind. The strongest line among many mysteriously connected
thoughts is “The thought of something is always much better than the feeling.”


Ha Ha Tonka may turn out to be a difficult band to market,
since they don’t fit neatly into contemporary demographic slots. But the music
is so creative, and so infectious, that it deserves a wider audience. Death of a Decade is a good place to
start but it will almost certainly lead to wanting the previous two albums, as


DOWNLOAD: “Problem
Solver,” “The Humorist,” “Usual Suspects” STEVE PICK

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