No Surf Music

 


The No Surf Review


 

The Lowdown:

Artist:
Ha Ha Tonka

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

Based In:
West Plains, Missouri

Website:

 

Album:
Death of a Decade

Release Date:
April 5, 2011

Label:
Bloodshot Records

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

Genres:
Americana, alt.country, rock, indie rock

 

Related Articles:

Ha Ha Tonka, Death of a Decade cover art

Rating: 9 out of 10


 


 

April 16, 2011

 

May 2011 Featured Review

Ha Ha Tonka: Death of a Decade

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad

 

Ha Ha Tonka poses outside the barn where they recorded Death of a Decade

Ha Ha Tonka: just another day hangin' out in a barn. I thought that's what Wal-Mart was for. (l-r) Brian Roberts, Lucas Long, Lennon Bone, Brett Anderson. Photo by Todd Roeth.

Recipe for Death of a Decade:

1 part Old 97’s
1 part Alison Krauss
1 part Akron/Family
1 part Arcade Fire
dash of Ozark Mountain Daredevils

Combine all ingredients in blender. Mix well. Allow to settle one week in historic upstate New York barn. Distill to 100 proof. Present to Bloodshot Records for release.

Sounds like a strange concoction for sure, but the result is a stunningly visionary work that proves what I’ve been saying for years: that Ha Ha Tonka is the band to watch on the Americana music scene and will be for a long time to come. 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.

It all started with the rechristening of the band and the release of their seminal work Buckle in the Bible Belt in 2006-7. The album, a high-energy mix of rock and country drawing alternately from traditional folklore and contemporary experience, still stands as the penultimate work in the entire genre, behind only Lucinda Williams’ masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Yet for all of its brilliance—much resting on the shoulders of lead singer and budding master lyricist Brian Roberts—the album was still a fairly conventional alt.country offering, heavy on the alt.

The group stepped up their game creatively with 2009’s Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. Despite the alliterative and vowel-heavy Frenchified title, the concept album was actually a return to their origins, blending more country and bluegrass elements into the songs while maintaining a lyrical reliance on the local Southern Missouri storytelling tradition. Roberts’ efforts as wordsmith continued to be strong but the musical tone shifted, with more complicated compositions where Brett Anderson’s mandolin began replacing some—though not all—of the power guitar riffs evident on Buckle.

Then came Death of a Decade, which folds even more influences into the mix as the band matures toward their own distinct sound. Their base is still the classic alt.country of the Old 97’s with the bluegrass roots of Alison Krauss underneath, but the wall of sound poppiness of Arcade Fire pervades nearly every song, while chanting vocals à la Akron/Family add an almost hypnotic quality. The intricately woven blend makes this new offering greater than the sum of its parts and gives it a sound that stands out from anything else out there.

The highlights of the album are a trio of songs starting with the first single, “Usual Suspects.” Driven by Lucas Long’s rolling bass line and Lennon Bone’s cymbal-crashing beats, the song also showcases the growing influence of Anderson’s mandolin in the structure of the band’s music. The next standout is “Made Example Of,” again demonstrating the picking skills of Anderson and featuring masterfully blended vocal harmonies. Perhaps more than any other, this track demonstrates the new direction the band is taking as their sound comes to fruition. Finally there is “The Humorist,” a powerful song and the standout lyrical composition, which not only demonstrates Roberts’ love of Missouri history, but also proves that somebody actually made it all the way through Mark Twain’s autobiography and didn’t just leave it sitting on the coffee table to impress visitors.

Ha Ha Tonka, in an old, empty pool

Now it's an old, empty pool. I notice you changed your clothes, but you brought the chair along with you. At least you're planning ahead. Hey, Luke, stop eating the paint chips! Photo by Todd Roeth.

In between these hallmarks are tracks that are not just filler, but which many other musicians would envy. The second offering on the album, the Horace Greeley inspired coming-of-age song “Westward Bound,” is a good representation, featuring a two-toned feel due to several tempo changes, impressively harmonic vocal chants, and characteristically pithy lyrics. This song, “Jesusita,” and “No Great Harm” also demonstrate some of the best usage to date of Long’s gut-shuddering bass vocals, a seasoning underused on previous albums that adds a complex flavor key to the dish as a whole. The lone composition by lead guitarist Anderson, “Dead Man’s Hand,” is a haunting down-tempo number with plenty of poetic imagery that suggests that he, too, is growing as a songwriter. And the title track combines driving bass guitar and kick drum along with laid-back yet powerful guitar riffs that soar along with Roberts’ briefly falsetto voice.

In the final analysis, Death of a Decade is not Ha Ha Tonka’s greatest album. That title still firmly belongs to Buckle in the Bible Belt. However, it is their most imaginative, visionary work to date and will be remembered as a turning point in their discography that marks the formation of a sound exclusively their own. It is also the group’s most consistent creation, without a single track that fails to hold the listener’s attention or fit seamlessly into the whole. Whether or not the early success of Death of a Decade foretells the band’s much-deserved breakout to the forefront of the Americana scene, Ha Ha Tonka’s skillful studio work and exceptional, raucous live shows make them a genre-crossing force to be reckoned with. And while this album stands above virtually all of their contemporaries’ offerings, given the assemblage of talent at their disposal, there’s nowhere to go but up.

 

Buy Death of a Decade on Amazon!
mp3 cd vinyl

 


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