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The Lowdown:

Ha Ha Tonka

Brett Anderson (guitar/mandolin/vocals), Lennon Bone (drums/vocals), Lucas Long (bass/vocals), Brian Roberts (vocals/guitar)

Based In:
West Plains, Missouri




Release Date:
September 24, 2013

Bloodshot Records

Previous Releases:
Buckle in the Bible Belt (2006), Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South (2009), Death of a Decade (2011)

Americana, alt country, rock, indie rock


Related Articles:

Ha Ha Tonka, Lessons cover art

Rating: 8 out of 10



September 26, 2013



October 2013 Featured Review

Ha Ha Tonka: Lessons

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Never content with the limits of their sound, explorers Ha Ha Tonka have pushed their sound even further into unexplored territory with Lessons, an album that throws any boundaries the genre might previously have had right out the window. (l-r) Brett Anderson, Lennon Bone, Lucas Long, Brian Roberts. Photo by Frank Hill.

In the very first No Surf Review back in May of 2011, I wrote of Ha Ha Tonka that, “The group has undergone a total sonic transformation over the span of their relatively brief collaboration, yet they remain true to their Ozark roots. The result is a sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before and a dish that will serve the musical tastes of an ever-growing legion of fans.” Now, with their new album Lessons, the band has taken that transformation even further, building on the intricate sonic designs of Death of a Decade and creating something like a hillbilly symphony or Ozark rock opera, a lush and expansive sound paired with weighty yet accessible lyrics based much in the philosophy of lead vocalist/lyricist Brian Roberts but also flowing from the musical and personal harmonies of a band that after four studio albums only seems to be plumbing the true depths of their creativity more and more with every offering.

I’m not the only one who sees the clear line of progression over the band’s career. As drummer Lennon Bone explains, “When we finish a record, I like to go back and listen to the ones previous and see how it stands. Having done that with Lessons, I think if we had approached the songs on any of our previous albums with the same experiences and the same knowledge we have about each other, those albums would be exponentially better.”

“I feel like Lessons is the record we've always wanted to make,” he continues. “I think it's the Tonka we've always wanted to be. When I feel us play these songs live, I hear that we are a different band than we were even two years ago. We're much more mature in the way we approach our instruments, and much more comfortable in our own strengths and weaknesses. We've accepted who we are and want to surround ourselves with people who help us approach what we do in new ways. I think that kind of comfort is sometimes what shows the most growth in a band or artist.”

This sense of self-discovery pervades not just the album’s musical collaboration, but the lyrics, as well. Roberts, an exceptionally ruminative person by nature, has always seemed to have a fascination with the concept of growing into himself, a theme he explores in multiple facets and to great depth throughout Lessons, giving the title real resonance.

The leadoff track, “Dead to the World,” for instance, touches on some of the main themes of the album as a whole: aging, recognizing your own identity, and relating to the outside world, especially when your own expectations conflict with those around you. The track opens up on the familiar ground of Brett Anderson’s mandolin but quickly moves into new territory as it develops into a dramatic crescendo before finally collapsing back into the twang of high-register picks. Familiar elements like handclap percussion are mixed with new sounds like piano and strings, making the sound far more expansive than anything the band had previously attempted. Yet the core of the Ha Ha Tonka sound remains evident beneath the ocean-like swelling of bows and expressive pressing of keys.

The next track, “Colorful Kids,” again opens with the high-pitched picking of a mandolin before resolving into a driving beat dominated by Lucas Long’s bass, a sound more recognizable as the typical Tonka style. Also in trademark fashion, it blends upbeat music with darker topics, in this case another aspect of aging, the inevitable feeling that promise has been lost along the way, that we might not really be as unique as we always thought we were, and that as individuals we fade into the background of life more and more until we are whisked away entirely. Another familiar meme is the fact that Roberts dips into his Missouri heritage for metaphorical fodder. Having previously written a tribute to Mark Twain in Death of a Decade’s “The Humorist,” this time he uses the writer’s most famous character as a potential prophet showing the way out of this colorless desert:

Huckleberry Finn,
We need a Huck Finn
To figure out a way that we could run away again.

The duke and the king,
The duke and the king
Are coming into town to carry out another scheme.

For Roberts, the references to the novel’s faux aristocratic hucksters constitute “metaphors for the adult world invading the innocence or naïveté of youth,” but I can’t help but see parallels to two more modern American icons of the same fake titles, John Wayne and Elvis Presley, one representing a throwback to a simpler time and one a challenge to the established order, but both really just machines for making money.

The next track, “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” combines that literary bent with another Tonka trademark, Roberts’ ability to craft punchy, ultra memorable lines. He doesn’t waste any time, either, as the first verse declares:

Raised in the age of reason,
It was a sepia season.
Steinbeck sang an anthem and we knew what it meant.

Especially when paired with an invocation of the poet eulogist of the South, that bit of gloriously alliterative imagery just seems to drip with nostalgia, like the crisp wind carrying the smell of fallen leaves through the autumn air. Against a backdrop of syncopated beats tying together a wistful electric guitar, the remaining lyrics examine several of life’s greater paradoxes, such as the need for others’ support in order to stand on one’s own, the fact that acquiring possessions often only weighs one down, and the irony that the peak of our achievements and the end of life are often so closely linked, even as one is greeted with lust and the other with fear.

On the subject of paradox, “Terrible Tomorrow” manages to create a sense of bright foreboding. Light-footed music marked by shimmering strummed acoustic guitar, flowing strings, and rolling cymbals accompanies a sooth-saying Roberts singing with a strain in his voice as if trying to overcome a troublesome knot in his throat. With some of the strongest lyrics on the album, the song is full of imagery, like “little thought bubbles over everybody’s head” representing the transparent ugliness of motives. The most memorable lines involve the putting on a facades, perhaps the mask worn on stage as protection from a life spent on the weary road:

My face, a concrete smile.
I should take it off; I've been wearing it a while.
It's a hideous thing and a little bit maniacal now.

No, I'm no fortune-teller,
But I can see it coming, a terrible tomorrow.
It's a terrible tomorrow, a terrible tomorrow we'll know.

The end of the song contains an extended bridge that once again displays Roberts’ keen interest in history and ability to weave it into his narratives, as he sings among a swelling of strings and the atonal pounding of keys:

Last night I had a dream:
It was Mary Todd Lincoln and me in a theater.
It was real enough
I checked the back of my head for blood.
And when I woke up
I checked the back of my head for blood.
Oh, when I woke up
I checked the back of my head for blood.

One not-entirely-sequential group of tracks must be discussed together, because they all involve the same repeated metaphor, that of the “synthetic love” and “synthetic heart.” The first part of the device crops up in the track "Synthetic Love,” which serves as an extended introduction to "Arabella,” and describes a devotion crafted by the lovers on their own terms, outside the constraints of the society around them in a Romeo and Juliet fashion. The "Synthetic Heart"/"Rewrite Our Lives" portion is at once about a literal synthetic organ—making an extended life or even immortality possible—and the need to resynthesize one’s metaphorical heart in order to reinvent oneself —given the inevitability of having it broken. Finally, the ersatz organ pops up again in "Cold Forever," referring specifically to morality and the will (or lack thereof) to end one’s life on one's own schedule.

According to Roberts, these interlaced motifs were included because the band “Wanted to have certain concurrent themes run throughout the album, without going full-on 'Tommy.'”

“The imagery of synthetic hearts beating eternally,” he continues, “or the notion of unending synthetic love was really just an attempt to capture the feeling created by Maurice Sendak in an NPR Fresh Air interview that I listened to last year. It was the genesis of this album. After hearing it, I became terribly inspired.  Sendak's thoughts on the creative process and being an artist really resonated with me.  I found his brutal honesty to be enviable. The things he discusses throughout the interview are hard truths uttered in the softest of ways.  The ‘fragility, irrationality…the comedy of life… when it's gone, it's gone forever…’ We wanted to try and capture those messages with these songs.  The phrase ‘live your life’ could be considered cliché, but it seems so authentic when Sendak says it.  It's the truth, the hard, soft truth.”

What makes this series of songs all the more impressive is that Roberts wove the metaphorical strings that bind them together not only despite differing topics, musical styles and lead vocalists, but different authorship entirely.

Brian, for instance, penned the brief, transitional “Synthetic Love” and the lines:

Arabella, my love.
Arabella, my heart.
Arabella, I knew it right from the start.

My curious mind,
A synthetic love.
We'll make it ourselves; it might be enough.

However, the track “Arabella” itself— perhaps the closest thing to a rock piece on the album with the throbbing, fuzzy guitar and operatic vocal fury of its crests juxtaposed with the intensely intricate, delicate vocals of its troughs—was written by Brett Anderson.

Likewise, Roberts’ “Rewrite Our Lives”—perhaps the album’s premier track with its thick vocal harmonies and bouncy guitar line—is followed by the absolutely gorgeous, string squeaks and all, “Cold Forgiver” with its Beatlesque vocals and a refrain written by Anderson.

The former proclaims:

I wish that we could rewrite our lives.
I wish that we could rewrite our lives so many times.
If we could rewrite our lives

So many times we could learn from our mistakes.
Synthetic hearts could replace the ones we break.
I know that love gives you more than what it takes.

We could repeat all the good times.
We'll keep our defeats and failures in mind.
It's a brand new start with a synthetic heart.

The latter then completes the metaphor with the lines:

I know we got old overnight and the morning showed our age.
So many years went by in a dream.

I didn't come here to beg for forgiveness, but I still can.
If that's what you want, just say the word.

I thought our synthetic hearts would never stop beating until
We both decided we'd had our fill.

With blazing hot electric guitar licks and driving bass reminiscent of their earlier albums, the title track “Lessons” nevertheless continues the multi-layered approach, often with a variety of sounds that seem to be moving in different directions, lead vocals that feel as if they come through from another dimension entirely, chanted vocal harmonies, and a progression of sustained organ chords like a chilling scream cutting through the dark of night.

An element that’s largely missing from this album, the bass vocals of Lucas Long used to such great effect on Death of a Decade are most evident in “The Past Has Arms,” another track exploring the themes of aging gracefully, overcoming ego and moving forward informed by the past instead of encumbered by it. In fact, in light of the stark contrast it presents to the bulk of the album’s lush textures, the stripped back section toward the end of the track, highlighting the powerful vocal harmonies, is a definite highlight, as the band chants:

I know that the past has arms,
Oh, ‘cause I can feel it hold me tight.
I can feel I hold me tight
And every time I close my eyes
I can still some light.

I know that the road we’re on,
Oh, it's gonna come to an end.
It’s gotta come to an end,
But every time I turn around
I always turn back again.

That “we’re” was apparently originally written as “I’m,” but at some point I’m guessing a very conscious decision was made to pluralize it, transforming a personal reflection into a metaphor for the band’s journey together, wholly appropriate on an album that’s not only relevant on an individual level, but just as much about the growth of these four individuals together over nearly a decade’s time together.

One track seems strangely out of place, “Pied Pipers.” While musically complex, it’s a lyrical throwback to the group’s early days when they were still known as Amsterband, throwing backwoods parties for drunk high schoolers. It’s essentially a party song, and not even a particularly philosophical one. Still it’s pleasant enough for what it is and I suppose the sense of nostalgia that seeps through every note gives it some resonance with the album’s larger themes.

As a coda, “Prove the World Wrong” returns to the band’s musical mountain roots with its simple melody (and rare use of a banjo), but ties things together thematically by bringing it all back home as Roberts concludes after all of the soul searching and self examination:

Much like the album's cover, this image represents not only the lessons learned as we grow older, the dual selves of past and present, but also the blending together of the different personalities in the band to create a whole, Ha Ha Tonka, a groundbreaking group that has once again created an album that redefines the genre. Photo by Steven Lewis.

I set out to prove the world wrong
But all the lessons I've learned have only taught me that I'm stubborn.
And the funny thing is that I knew that all along
When I set out to prove the world wrong.

The refrain repeats at the end in a spectral incarnation, a shadowy echo of itself or the thin scratches of an old record curiously heard from the bottom of a well, as if to remind the listener just one more time that everything on this album has layers far beyond those first evident on the surface.

The real funny thing is that Ha Ha Tonka has proven the world wrong once again with Lessons. By reimagining what can be even while remaining true to their roots, they’ve created an album unlike anything their listeners have ever heard.

The band’s early albums, Buckle in the Bible Belt and Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South were relatively simple and highly accessible, while Death of a Decade now appears an obvious transition on the way toward the grand hillbilly opulence of Lessons. Maybe that’s why no particular track stands out to me as an obvious great like Buckle’s “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor,” Novel Sounds’ “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart” or DoaD’s “Usual Suspects.” But Lessons is not an album about individual tracks, it’s a concept meant to be listened to and viewed as a whole, and there’s not a single piece of it that doesn’t deserve many repeated plays. Demonstrating the band members’ growing maturity both as individuals and as a group, it breaks new sonic ground and undoubtedly marks Ha Ha Tonka among the most creative groups in Americana today.



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