[20 April 2011]
A few facts about Springfield, Missouri’s favorite sons Ha Ha Tonka. Despite their moniker, they’re not a goofy barroom band, though they call Bloodshot home and can bring the rock when the situation demands it. They’re really more of a singer-songwriter-y, folk-y, indie rock-with-a-mandolin band these days. Second, these guys really know how to give an album an evocative title (‘07’s Buckle in the Bible Belt, ‘09’s Nove Sounds of the Nouveau South and now Death of a Decade). Third, there’s a lot of buzz around Ha Ha Tonka, here in 2011, and deservedly so. Frontman Brian Roberts, more than ably backed by guitarist Brett Anderson, bassist Lucas Long and drummer Lennon Bone, is a rapidly maturing songwriter unafraid to examine the darker side of life, while still delivering catchy songs.
Though Death of a Decade as a title calls to mind a massive gesamtkunstwerk tackling the last 10 years, Roberts’ POV is far more personal, and feels like an inventory one makes as one nears 30. After the bait-and-switch opening rocker “Usual Suspects”, the midtempo waltz “Westward Bound” finds Roberts packing up and starting over – “Our bad times, we left them back east”—before yielding to a hopeful, wordless chorus. Of course the dark, driving cautionary tale “Made Example Of” immediately flips the script: “If you don’t change where you’re going, you’re gonna end up right where you’re headed.” It’s equal part AA slogan and deep universal truth. Meanwhile, “Lonely Fortunes”, with its sweep of cinematic strings, acknowledges that taking a chance means risking losing everything. There are no easy answers in this life: move, stay put, change gears, self-destruct. Roberts wants to know, where did those choices take you? Did you make it through to adulthood?
Roberts continues that line of questioning and exploration on Side B, even if a definitive answer never arrives. To these ears, the soaring title track gets a little too obtuse (“I was just about to change…. You were the passenger who would not wave”), but there’s no denying his passion and frustration, both with himself and those around him. The rueful confessional “No Great Harm” finds Roberts admitting, “I only hurt the ones I loved by keeping myself separate,” and hoping for forgiveness after a dark night of the soul. Heavy stuff.
Fortunately, Ha Ha Tonka come out intact. The closing “The Humorist” veers towards an upbeat jazzy vibe, where most of the preceding tracks have a Fleet Foxes/Moondoggies/pick your Band disciple bent; a happier sense of self-awareness (“Never thought I was all that funny”); and what seems to be a key allusion to Samuel Longhorne Clemens.
Death of a Decade feels like a trilogy-ender for Ha Ha Tonka’s discography-to-date, and a triumphant one, to be sure. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess, but they are definitely not afraid to be a band you want to grow old with.