Ha Ha Tonka
New Release: Lessons
Release Date: Today (September 24, 2013)
Record Label: Bloodshot Records
Sounds Like: Band of Horses (NMT); Oh No!, Oh My! (NMT); The Postelles (NMT)
Location: West Plains, Mo.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: a band who has put out a few solid, but not exceptional records turns in an effort that serves not as an elaboration from their previous form, but a fulfillment of it – the type of music they were destined to make if their composite elements came together in a cohesive fashion. Such a description could easily apply to several releases we've reviewed previously here, most notably the ones listed in the Sounds Like field above. This time around, its the fourth full-length album by the rural Missouri alt-country, Americana quartet Ha Ha Tonka, Lessons (listen to it streaming here).
Over the course of the outfit's previous three records, there was plenty of earnest, stripped-down roots rock flavored with country influences and, at times, gospel-style vocal harmonies. But often it came across like they were trying a bit too hard to come across as hardscrabble and authentic, yielding somewhat forced songwriting and overwrought studio performances. Lessons, on the other hand, is easygoing and inviting, despite the fact that most of the instrumental arrangements are the most complex the group has ever delivered. If an resource economist were to review this record, they might dub it peak mandolin via lead guitarist/mandolinst Brett Anderson's exhaustive use of the instrument. A 70s-era funkmaster would be impressed with bassist Luke Long's often bouncy and occasionally groovy bass lines. Your blogger is satisfied with all of it, enjoying the output of a band that is just hitting its stride.
Come for: "Rewrite Our Lives" (an optimal choice for a leadoff single; fantastic hook and exemplary performance)
Stay for: "Dead To The World" (the album opener's 45 seconds of intro is the most elaborate and joyous instrumentation the band has recorded in their career, with mandolins, strings, pounding percussion from Lennon Bone, even touches of Celtic influence; the leadoff lyrics set the stage for the group's re-energized mission, that of overcoming inertia and embracing new ideas: "I'm at the stage when I only do things that I know how to do / I can make coffee and I can make small talk, cause who wants to try something new?"; frontman Brian Roberts has never sounded more genuine)
You'll be surprised by: "Colorful Kids" (the starkest departure from the group's previous signature sound; comes across like IRS-era R.E.M. [NMT]; the verses are catchy enough to be a perpetual chorus; Anderson's mandolin is out front again)
Solid efforts: "Staring At The End Of Our Lives" (a direct nod to the late era of The Replacements; some nice vocal harmonies in the chorus, stick around for Long's rubbery bass outro); "Synthetic Love"/"Arabella" (the short, :30 track introduces the recurring synthetic love/heart concept, then sets the stage for the record's only true ballad, a very rusty trails one at times, but the fuzzy, thumping post-choruses are something the band would never had tried before; which would pair nicely with Southeast Engine's "Ruthie" [NMT]); "Lessons" (once again, Long is the standout contributor here; the chorus, albeit catchy, is a bit repetitive – and, yes, I get that's the point – but they get points for experimentation); "American Ambition" (most similar to the bulk of their catalog); "Pied Pipers" (is Wilco-y a word? If it is, this is its definition); "The Past Has Arms" (easily the best singing on this collection); "Terrible Tomorrow" (can a western song be psychedelic? If so, this is what it would sound like); "Prove The World Wrong" (another dusty trails motif; I love albums that end with these types of farewell credos and this one builds in intensity as it reaches its zenith)
Meh: "Cold Forever" (nothing exceptionally wrong, but lacks the sizzle of the rest of the album)
Skip to next track: Give it all at least one listen