For those familiar with the novels of Daniel Woodrell (or for those who have seen the films Winter's Bone or Ride With The Devil which were both based on his novels), it is understood that the Ozark region of Missouri remains one of the Swampland Footprint's unique and compelling places. Missouri has long been America's crossroads, an intersection of cultures and a gateway from north to south as well as west to east. Lying over most of its state's southern half, the Missouri Ozarks retains a sense of history and heritage that seems to largely stay untouched by the outside world.
As Woodrell has captured this region from many perspectives in his writing, Ha Ha Tonka has done so musically over their past three albums. Their music, while thoroughly modern on one level, never loses its sense of place and history. In the same way that Drive-By Truckers use their Muscle Shoals roots as a palette for storytelling and musical roots, Ha Ha Tonka has the Ozarks. Both bands represent the best of today's post-punk era of southern rock.
Death Of A Decade continues the promise of Ha Ha Tonka's last two releases, Buckle In The Bible Belt and Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, but brings a less overt sense of history and place than either of them. Instead, Death's songs look inward and mostly focus on the idea of maturity. The production on the album matches this change in theme as some of the rougher edges of the previous two albums have been sanded down a bit to allow the harmonies and acoustics to shine through more prominently.
Ha Ha Tonka's brand of southern rock immerses in Ozark mountain music - folk instruments with gospel harmonies - rendering a timeless sound without losing a modern edge. This isn't an effort to remake the past, but to honor it and to show how the past continues to live on within the present.
Lead guitarist Brett Anderson puts aside his amplifier and lets his mandolin do a lot of talking throughout as the album kicks off with the raucous "Usual Suspects" and never lets up from there. "Westward Bound" uses the imagery of the initial western pioneers that settled regions like the Ozarks as a metaphor for the idea of change and personal growth. "Jesusita" is a magical track that starts like a gospel dirge before evolving into the jangle rock of pre-Sweetheart era Byrds. Clocking in at a compact 40 minutes, there isn't a bum track to be found.
In reading recent interviews with the band, Ha Ha Tonka are a group of settled men. They have lives outside of their music careers that have been woven into the songs on this album. Each one brings a sense of contentment, reflection, and understanding. There's a decade dead lying behind them perhaps, but one's twenties are a lost period for many men as they journey from boy to man. Some of this same sentiment can be found on Iron and Wine's equally rewarding new album.
Death Of A Decade finds Ha Ha Tonka brimming with confidence. No longer the young pups, they know that they have become men of substance and purpose. In a time when the music industry at large remains obsessed with youth, Ha Ha Tonka brings an unapologetic and refreshing sense of age and experience to their music.
The bar in 2011 has been set high. There may not be a finer album released this year.
- Jim Markel