For a few years now Ha Ha Tonka has kind of been our little Ozarkian secret. Not that we were trying desperately to keep it that way, in fact I for one have been starting blazes wherever I could hoping to watch the wild fire burn. It’s been a privilege knowing these guys since 2004 when they were still learning how to walk as a band, then under the name of Amsterband, and it’s hard to imagine it has been 7 years, a name change, a record label, and 3 albums since that day I first saw them play.
Finally it appears all my hard work setting fires has paid off… 🙂 haha, ok so I don’t have much to do with it as their music speaks for itself and if you happen to catch these guys live you’ll be hooked as soon as your foot starts stompin’ and you can’t help but sing along as the guys are belting out the chorus. After two previous album releases I’ve seen the fan base grow a little each time, but Death of a Decade seems to be grabbing the attention of music junkies nationwide as their album showed up on the Billboard 200 at #185 and the Billboard Heatseekers Chart at #4 the week it was released. So it’s pretty safe to say it’s time to share our secret with the world. If you asked me, it’s about damn time!
Before I talk about Death of a Decade let me tell you what I liked about the two previous albums (Buckle in the Bible Belt and Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South.)
Buckle in the Bible Belt
BitBB was their first release under the new label Bloodshot Records. It was actually self-released before the signing and was recorded in an old church in Union, MO. This album is by far their rowdiest, most foot-stompin’ album to date and they did their best to make it sound like their live set. It’s raw and fluff free. Just four guys making some music. They still play a lot of song off this album such as crowd favorites, “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor”, “Caney Mountain”, “Up Nights”, and “Hangman.”
Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South
NSotNS had this haunting, timeless feeling to it. You can tell this album was kind of experimental for them. They did a lot more playing around in the studio with different sounds which becomes very apparent in the song “What Shepherds of These Hills?!” Though I think of this album as their softer album, that doesn’t mean they don’t get rowdy. The songs on this album seem to have a lot of ups and downs. They’re melodic and putting you to sleep at one point and the next thing you know you’re being awakened by some gritty guitar and hollering lyrics. I for one really loved the movements in these songs. It kept them interesting and gave them depth.
Death of a Decade
So that gets us to the third album released through Bloodshot Records, Death of a Decade. I can easily say I think this is the best album they’ve produced. It shows just how much they’ve matured and grown into the their sound, which is hard to place into one specific genre. This album I feel goes in a more bluegrassy-rock direction than the last two because of the heavy influence of that little 8-stringed instrument known as the mandolin. Brett Anderson drives many of the songs on this album with some great mandolin riffs that are quite catchy by themselves. Luke Long’s bass vocals have improved and were much more noticeable, making the four part harmonies really stand out as a whole. Brian Roberts’ writing just keeps improving too. I love the lyrics and the unique way Brian delivers them. He has some really catchy lines on this album. Lennon Bone makes the songs come alive with his creative drumming and I love that he’s not afraid to stop playing and let the songs breathe for a bit. I can tell this album was very well thought out, yet it still manages to keep that simplistic feel to it; it’s not over produced. From start to finish you can’t help but bob your head and tap your foot. See them live and it’s a whole different story. Bring your dancing shoes.
I’d like to go on and continue the review of each song, but in case I’m boring you have a look at the just released video for “Usual Suspects.”
The songs are listed in album order. The number associated with the track is the order of my favorites, 1 being favorite.
Usual Suspects (9): This song starts the album off giving you a sense of what’s to come. Starting with that driving mandolin and an infectious beat that gets your blood pumping and your legs moving. It also introduces you to some of the clever lyrics you’ll be hearing along the way, “100% I am made of cotton. I shrink when I sink in hot water. That little girl, so hot she’s scalding. Ain’t gonna be nothing left of me.” Usual Suspects is a great opener to the album that rocks you from start to finish and leaves you eager to hear more.
Westward Bound (10): This song has a coming of age feel to it as Robert’s belts out, “I realize the youth is wasted on the young. Oh, I know I’ve wasted more than some…Oh, I know that now my wasted days are done.” Toned down a bit from the soaring Usual Suspects this medium rocker shines when the anthem like chanting of “Na Na’s (or maybe it’s La La’s)” comes in while Robert’s sings, “Hard times, we left ’em back east. And the future moves under our feet.” You can almost see Roberts smiling as he sings this song and it leaves you with a hopeful feeling about the future of this band.
Made Example Of (3): This is one of my favorite tunes and I think one of the catchier songs on the album. It’s another track that’s really driven by the mandolin and the drums that kick it off just after the brief intro. The mandolin riffs are almost eerie on this song and it consists of some of my favorite drumming and it’s great example of that breathing I was saying Bone lets the songs have. It has one of the simplest statements in it, but it’s so deep at the same time, “If you don’t change where you’re going, you’re gonna end up right where you’re headed.” You gotta do something if you expect a change.
Jesusita (5): This song starts out with some simple guitar plucking and 4 part harmonies with Long’s bass vocals really standing out. The guys all pleading, “Heaven help us now!” Then it kicks it up a notch when all the instruments come in and everyone starts chanting some “OHOooOOos.” Lyrically this song is a bit dumbed down from Roberts usual deep and rhythmic writing, but you can’t help repeating with them as they sing that haunting chant over and over.
Lonely Fortunes (4): And back again is that sweet sweet mandolin sound. This time it’s taking more of a back seat as the kick drum really drives this song. When the mandolin is in the forefront it’s just such a pleasing and catchy sound. Lyrically, this is one of my favorite songs, “We’re never gonna have much. Myself I take such as a compliment. We can blame it on the circumstances. Oh at least we took the chances we had to.” There are some more really great parts to sing along with when the guys start chanting their “La Dee Da’s.”
Hide it Well (1): I’ve read several reviews that have talked about a lull in the middle of the album and some naming this song as the one that kills the mood. I’d have to completely disagree with those claims. This is my absolute favorite track on the album. Though it may be slow it has some of the best harmonies on the whole album and some really great guitar picking. Not to mention the lyrics just flow like butter off the tongue. Every song doesn’t need to raise my heart rate to keep me intrigued and I think this is a welcomed break in the middle of the album. There’s no hiding it here. I love this song. “Honey my heart is a heavy one. I need to rest a spell, for you it was I fell. Nobody wants to act like they care too much. I’m gonna hide it well.”
Dead Man’s Hand (11): I’m usually a pretty big fan of Anderson’s lead vocal songs, but this one just didn’t do much for me. It’s by no means bad, there just doesn’t seem to be much about it that really stands out to me and makes me seek it out to listen again. I still don’t pass it up if I’m listening to the album though. I do really like the opening, but it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere from there and the song seems a bit repeated. I do love the lyrics, “We got drunk off a whiskey blend. They’re all the same when you can’t stand.” I feel like I’m really bashing this song, but I really don’t mean to. Anderson’s high vocals do shine and there is some great harmonizing. Just cause it’s my least favorite on the album doesn’t make it bad, it’s still a great song.
Problem Solver (7): This hard rockin’ song brings back memories of Buckle in the Bible Belt and turns the volume back up. It starts off with some great electric guitar plucking and then some really cool clapping kicks in. This song features some of Long’s best vocals and if you have issues controlling your bowels careful on this one cause those bass vocals are liable to loosen something up. The song takes a little instrumental break in the middle before finishing out strong just the way it started. There are some really clever lyrics in this one hidden in there with that repeating chorus. “I had a little momentary lapse of self-awareness, she could care less. Yeah, I got problems that I’m working out. I know enough to know I don’t know myself yet.”
Death of a Decade (8): There is something really epic about the sound of this song. The drums start out so simple and build up wonderfully. Then towards the end there are some great gang vocals that just make the build up seem so timeless. It’s hard for me to put this song so far down on the list, but that just goes to show how many great songs are on this album. With the Death of a Decade could come the raise of something new, time to make a change. “I was just about to change. Man, I gotta change my ways.”
No Great Harm (2): This song really just has it all. Bone laid down some amazing drums, the mandolin is in full swing, and the harmonies are top notch. It’s a got a great build to it. Starting off pretty mellow and getting into a pretty full fledged sing-a-long at the end. I listened to this album probably 3 times before I even recognized how amazing this track was. It’s kind of a sleeper buried at the end of the album between the title track and the great closer. I’m really glad I came around to this song as it’s one of my very favorites now. The beginning is quite sad, but the wording is perfect. “Carry me softly, six men strong. On their shoulders, a box of bones.”
The Humorist (6): Knowing Roberts I’m sure this song is a bit of a tribute to Missouri writer and fan of Ha Ha Tonka, Mark Twain. Ok, so maybe he’s not a fan, but I’m sure he would have been if he had heard this song. This was another one that took several listens to really appreciate. I’m pretty sure it was the chanting towards the end that really won me over. “Tell me how deep that river is. Tell me how deep that river is. Say my name. Say my name. Everybody yell Mark Twain. Ain’t it entertaining, isn’t it appealing, the thought of something’s always much better than the feeling.” This electric guitar driven song was a great way to end the album.
After putting out 3 very different albums it’s hard to tell where Ha Ha Tonka music may be a year from now, but I can only imagine wherever it is, it will be fresh, exciting, and in my CD player for months. Whatever you do, don’t keep these guys a secret.