“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 third 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”
Death of a Decade is the culmination of ten years of hard work for this Ozark quartet. They wowed us with their 2007 debut Buckle in the Bible Belt, matured on 2009’s Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, and without a doubt, take their stand as one of the best young bands in the US on this LP. And as with Ha Ha Tonka’s previous releases, the band marries authentic Southern songs with modern edges on Death of a Decade, without ever coming across as gimmicky.
The album was recorded in a 200-year-old old barn in New Paltz, NY with producer Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, The Felice Brothers, The Walkmen), who made sure to capture the barn’s aural imperfections in creeking floorboards, and then mixed in Kansas City, MO by The Ryantist, who manipulated synthetic, sonic threads into this organic tapestry. The sound of Death of a Decade is where authentic meets modern, acoustic meets electronic, and tradition meets innovation.
Lyrically, Death of a Decade is less “story-based” than the last two albums (which pulled heavily from Mizzou 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,” lead vocalist Brian Roberts sings on “Westward Bound,” “I now know 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 there is traditional instrumentation (just listen to guitarist Brett Anderson’s killer 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 there are the heart-stirring 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 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’re 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 will need to ask for—it will be offered.