Nothing is more exhilirating than the feelings that accompany the birth of autumn. The air turns crisp and the colors become more vibrant, indicating the end of pool parties and beginning of bonfires and pumpkin patches, but also the impending promise of winter's chill. It brings with it a mood that is at once galvanizing, uneasy, and contemplative. Ha Ha Tonka's latest LP Lessons—released on Bloodshot Records just in time for the changing of the season—provides the soundtrack to that atmosphere, presenting a majestic, warm sound with delicate undertones.
Ha Ha Tonka has come a long way since its previous release, 2011's Death of A Decade. The group has completed several US tours with the likes of Langhorne Slim, Murder By Death, Reverend Horton Heat, The Old 97s, and many more. Back in June, Tonka completed its second European tour (link to our article on the tour with drummer Lennon Bone) and has gotten a steady amount of buzz that’s only increased since the first track from Lessons, “Colorful Kids,” debuted back in July in Spin.
But most of all, Lessons represents the maturing sound of a band that has grown collectively as musicians and individually as men.
Brian Roberts, Brett Anderson, Lucas Long, and Lennon Bone have been making music together for nearly a decade—nine years to be exact (three of those years were spent under a different moniker; Ha Ha Tonka has been a band since 2007)— and Lessons is the culmination of their refined musical abilities and personalities. This is probably most evident in the title track, which eases in like that first slow, cathartic pull off a cigarette after a long, stress-filled day. The vocals build from a delicate chant (“I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again / I keep learning the same lessons over”) into a compelling drone, while Anderson’s electric guitar squeals over ambient effects. Roberts has fully embraced his capabilities as a charismatic but formidable frontman—he has a penchant for intermingling a gentle, doleful tone (“I try to kick so many habits that I hold / but they hold onto me even when I let go of them”) with a dynamic battle cry as the song reaches its apex (“My heart is hurting / I don’t know when to say when”), careening into the ghostly four-part-harmony mantra.
From lead-off track “Dead to the World,” it’s indisputable that Tonka has carved out a new path with this LP (which was inspired by the writings of Maurice Sendak). The track features Rob Moose (who has worked with artists including Paul McCartney, Rufus Wainwright, and The National) on strings, who creates a rich, opulent foundation that lingers until the final note of the album. Somehow, the band creates a colossal environment around the string arrangement, with Bone’s textural cymbal accents, Anderson’s mandolin riffs—which continually become a more crucial element of the band’s sound—and Long’s punctuated but fundamental bass lines.
From there, the album shifts seamlessly through heartfelt interludes and transitions. Ushered in by the forlorn thirty-second interlude “Synthetic Love,” “Arabella” features Anderson on lead vocals and represents the haunting, desperate purity of the band’s evolving songwriting style. It also demonstrates a respect the musicians have for their craft; they exercise self-restraint in the music without leaving out critical elements. They emphasize the strengths of each piece of each song and adorn them with nuances that sometimes may take a few listens to catch. But they are worth catching.
Make no mistake: though Tonka’s sound has become more refined, it is still steeped in the same Ozark tradition, charm, and authenticity that its fans appreciate. Produced by Dan Molad (Lucius) and The Ryantist (Antennas Up) with assistant engineer Jacob Goldman, it seems that Lessons was an opportunity for the band to experiment with methods it hadn’t before—methods that would enhance and cultivate its existing sound. For instance, in “Rewrite Our Lives,” the vocal harmonies were sung through a large kick drum, giving it an enormous, celestial presence; this is also Roberts’ most earnest and resolute vocal performance on the entire album. Bone pointed out in a previous interview with The Deli KC that “it’s still totally us, but it’s like the Tonka we’ve always wanted to be.”
At first blush, the ornate instrumentation and subtleties seem like an attempt toward a kinder, gentler, more radio-friendly Tonka. But with each listen, each member’s individual stories and characters unfold. And although it lacks some of the Southern rock grit that made Death of A Decade the success it was,Lessons more than makes up for it with a stronger sense of self-awareness and development. It tells a story that reads more fluidly and gracefully than any of Tonka’s previous efforts.
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