"In 'Usual Suspects,' the opening track from Death of a Decade, the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka busts out of the gates like classic Replacements on an Ozark bender. Premised on a killer riff, a great beat and singer Brian Roberts' throaty roar, Ha Ha Tonka may have created the catchiest mandolin-driven rock song since 'Losing My Religion.'" —NPR's Song of the Day
Named after Ha Ha Tonka State Park in their native Missouri, the group’s relentless touring has seen them become one of the most buzzed-about young bands in America, appearing at Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits Fest, Floydfest, SXSW, CMJ while touring nationally as a headlining act, as well as supporting many great bands such as Old 97s, Murder By Death, Langhorne Slim, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Ludo, Meat Puppets and more. In 2011, the band was featured guest on the Travel Channel's flagship show, "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations." The band has been also featured in national publications and sites such as SPIN, MTV, NPR and Rolling Stone.
“Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.” —Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone
There’s a certain wisdom that exists in the hills of the Ozarks. It’s a wisdom that spits out of the mouths of Woodrell’s characters; it’s a wisdom that is found in the lyrics by Woodrell’s fellow West Plains, Missouri natives, Ha Ha Tonka; and it’s a wisdom that’s found on the band’s new full-length LP, Death of a Decade.
“They say that if you don’t change where you’re going / you’re gonna end up right where you’re headed.” —Ha Ha Tonka, “Made Example Of”
Recorded in a 200 year old barn in scenic New Paltz, NY with producer Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, The Felice Brothers, The Walkmen), Death of a Decade began as a stripped down record, rich with warm tones that could only be captured under a 30 foot roof of a barn. “We wanted to make sure we left in all the imperfections of the barn such as the chairs squeaking and the boards creaking”, explains lead singer Brian Roberts. After tracking the songs in this rough hewn setting, the files were shipped to hAUs Studio in Kansas City, MO where The Ryantist mixed and manipulated synthetic sonic threads into this organic tapestry. Death of a Decade is where authentic meets synthetic, acoustic meets electronic, and tradition meets innovation.
Thematically, Death of a Decade is less “story-based” than Ha Ha Tonka’s previous work (which pulled heavily from Missouri history and folklore for its lyrics), with the band now focusing on the transition into manhood—something that doesn’t automatically come once you pass a certain age: “I realize that youth is wasted on the young,” Roberts sings on “Westward Bound,” “Oh, I know that now my wasting days are done.”
However, Roberts says, Death of a Decade is not meant to be a requiem for lost youth, but rather an embrace of the notion that the passage of time is better than the alternative. There you have it again: the wisdom of the Ozarks.
Even if the album’s songs aren’t specifically of the Ozarks, the sound is—still present is the traditional instrumentation (just listen to guitarist Brett Anderson’s arpeggio mandolin lines on “Usual Suspects” and “Made Example Of”), with bassist Lucas Long and drummer Lennon Bone rounding out the rhythm section to stampeding affect. Still present are the spine-tingling four-part gospel harmonies, a signature sound that sets Ha Ha Tonka apart from every other indie band-cum-Southern rock group that seems to be shambling out of the suburban woods these days.
Ultimately, what makes the Ha Ha Tonka brand of Southern rock so special is that it’s authentic, it’s effortless, and it never comes across as forced. They are masters at bringing together the traditional and the modern. They sit at the crossroads of Americana and indie, where Alabama meets Arcade Fire – shakes their hand and takes them out for a drink.
So, back to Woodrell’s Ozarkian wisdom from “Winter’s Bone,” being considered one of the best bands you’ll discover (or rediscover) in 2011 isn’t something Ha Ha Tonka ought need to ask for—it will be offered.