Photo: Jason Gonulsen

Ha Ha Tonka: Heart-Shaped Mountain

A pleasant collection of ear worms, soon to appear on a soundtrack near you.
Ha Ha Tonka

Ha Ha Tonka, formed in 2004, enters their teen years as a band with Heart-Shaped Mountain, and on the evidence of its ten songs, the band’s adolescence will be a pretty clean affair, free from most of the storms usually associated with the age. But then, teenaged in band years is more a middle-age kind of passage, the rock and roll lifestyle being sped up as it is. And Ha Ha Tonka’s arrival in its thirteenth year does indeed find its members confronting the traps and trappings of maturity: marriage, parenthood, and revised expectations.

Heart-Shaped Mountain debuts two new members in the Ha Ha Tonka lineup: Mike Reilly (from Hoots & Hellmouth) replaces Lennon Bone on drums while multi-instrumentalist/singer James Cleare adds another layer of depth to the band’s well-established sound. That sound of carefully-built harmonies, reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, matched to folk-rock jangle is refined on this, their fifth album, a compact collection that sounds locked and loaded for an assault on the adult-contemporary charts.

Ha Ha Tonka has always stood out for their highly literate songwriting, and Heart-Shaped Mountain shows continuing growth as bandleaders Brian Roberts and Brett Anderson take on topics revolving around the weight of maturity. In all, their message is one of embracing the challenge.

“Everything You Thought It Would Be” offers a catalog of life’s big events (“Meeting your daughter for the very first time”, “Falling in love for the very last time”) with a hope that each lived up to its expectation. The driving folk-rock and harmony-filled chorus evoke the kind of retrospective nostalgia that drives the final episode of a beloved television show (one will undoubtedly use it sometime soon; This Is Us, I’m looking at you). The chiming “All with You” conjures a mature romanticism of shared experience in all of life’s moments, big and small.

Not all is easy or television-scripted bliss, though. “The Party” opens with an infectious whistling melody that defies the self-doubt at the song’s core. Overstaying the party becomes a metaphor for emotional stagnation as friends move on and grow into representations of responsible adult life. Similarly in “Height of My Fears”, Roberts sings “My thoughts take flight on terrible wings” as he describes the anxieties of being haunted by what-ifs, a common psychological malady of aging.

Possibly the album’s defining philosophy is expressed amidst the carefree strumming of “Favor”: “Turn your back on the world / Live off the grid / Turn off your phone / You’ll be glad that you did.” It is good advice in our ever-accelerated world, and it comes from a bunch of guys who’ve been around the block a couple of times enough to know the difference between depth and distraction.

Heart-Shaped Mountain has the potential to bring Ha Ha Tonka to a much larger audience. It’s a collection of well-played, simple, truth-telling songs that could fit well into anyone’s soundtrack.

RATING 7 / 10