Ha Ha Tonka’s first album, 2007’s Buckle in the Bible Belt, was the kind of first album people long for: catchy but dense, energetic but earnest, recalling albums that had come before but, somehow, still fresh. It helped, of course, that the music was good — urgent, country-tinged rock and roll from the Ozarks, with literate lyrics and layered, keening harmonies. Quite simply, Buckle in the Bible Belt excited people.
So let’s just get this out of the way: Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South is a distinctly different sort of album. This isn’t to say that Ha Ha Tonka have lost the sound that made their debut album so good — rather the opposite, actually — but somewhere in the last few years Ha Ha Tonka has shed some of the youthful exuberance that they imbued into Buckle in the Bible Belt. Novel Sounds is an altogether more contemplative thing, moodier and less eager to please than its predecessor. Ha Ha Tonka have always thought that the world was a dark and uncertain place; on their second album, their music reflects that view.
The album opener, “Pendergast Machine”, is a sparse thing, just a grungy, arpeggiated electric guitar line and Brian Roberts’s hoarse vocals. It isn’t until “Hold My Feet to the Fire” that the band really kicks into gear, but to be fair, it is quite a gear: the song starts with a gorgeous four-part harmony, trades it almost immediately for a squelching guitar and driving drum line, doubles back on itself and somehow ends up as a sort of boozy sing-along. The song is held together by spit and glue, and it recalls the band’s debut in a way that nothing else here quite does.
The album — like the Ozarks, and the band’s home state of Missouri — is torn through by the shadow of the Civil War, and the conflict is the focus of the most violent subject matter here. “On to the sea, burn Athens to the ground!” Roberts sings on “The Horse in Motion”, a thunderous, loud, wailing thing. But more affecting is the later “A Siege of Sorts” which, short as it is, reads more like poem than a rock song:
Haunted by myself, until I found that
There were other ghosts gathering outside
The city walls of Charleston. A siege
of sorts, then the city falls.
The same lyrical prowess is present throughout Novel Sounds, in a way that was simply not forecast by Ha Ha Tonka’s first album. The crowning achievement of the album is the achingly beautiful “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart”, which is part suicide note, part love letter. “Only Dostoevsky would dream up a pair like us,” Roberts sings, and then, a few verses later, atop a cresting swell of electric guitars: “Only Dostoevsky would kill off a pair like us.”
There are straight-forward rockers here too, of course, and by and large they work well — particularly “The Outpouring” and “Walking on the Devil’s Backbone”. The band really only falters in a few places, and only when Roberts surrenders the microphone, as on “Word Climbing” and “Surrounded”. But the number of conventional rock songs is low here, and so, too, is the number of duds — a relationship that, in the context of the album, seems very telling.
It’s almost certain that Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South will not please all of the fans that Ha Ha Tonka garnered after the release of Buckle in the Bible Belt, and in a way the sheer fecklessness of their approach is attractive all on its own. But in crafting a more challenging album — a more mature album — Ha Ha Tonka have, against the odds, crafted a much better album, too. Novel sounds, indeed.