“I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again / I keep learning the same lessons over again” is the urgent manifesto that provides the core of the title track to Ha Ha Tonka’s fourth album, Lessons.
We believe such is a message that should be innate by the time we reach adulthood and have accrued enough stumbles and scars to know better, but the clarity of all the ways our missteps and poorly chosen words have become woven into our current trajectory like a cloud that’s impossible to shake. Hailing from the Ozarks and paying homage to the famed Missouri State Park of the same name, Ha Ha Tonka have always been a rugged and earnest underdog band with enough top-shelf songs steeped in red-blooded American life and roaring four-part harmonies to endure. They have already filled three acclaimed, near-flawless albums to the brim with barrages of powerful harmonies and scruffy immediacy. However, the jump they have made from their fantastic 2011 album, Death of a Decade (one of my essential albums of the last several years), to Lessons is altogether breathtaking.
The result is nearly akin to The White Album for the current Americana zeitgeist. It’s also a modest “fuck you” to academic, scornful takedowns of the genre’s surprising commercial ubiquity and Grammy-winning reach (i.e. Babel). Lessons stands above the ire of criticisms that every band with a banjo or a “Ho!” or a "Hey!” in the chorus is musically unadventurous, opportunistically cashing in on the craze and/or has nothing remotely interesting to say. Ha Ha Tonka’s progression isn’t the first of its kind for like-minded genre heroes. Refusing to rest on the laurels of a flawless formula (i.e. Death of a Decade) in urgent pursuit of the boundary-pushing excellence of Lessons calls to mind the growth spurts out of genre perfection that both My Morning Jacket (from It Still Moves to Z) and Wilco (from Being There to Summerteeth, if not the genius deconstruction and assimilation into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) pulled off more than a decade ago.
The extent of Ha Ha Tonka’s iconoclastic spirit isn’t wholly apparent right off the bat on Lessons. “Dead to the World” opens the album with wide-eyed, rustic swooning of strings and up-tempo percussion that build to a crescendo that would have fit squarely between any two songs on Death of a Decade. The glimmer of all that is to come is in the introspective gravity of Brian Roberts’ lyrics: “I’m close to the age that I only do things that I know how to do / I can make coffee and I can make small talk / ‘Cause who wants to try something new?”
It reads like a tongue-in-cheek response to all of those blog criticisms of a shapeless genre, and it’s a penetrating look in the mirror that bleeds into the title track’s thematic mantra and prepares you for all the mature themes Ha Ha Tonka are ready to tackle: aging, innovation, unapologetic pursuit of potentially futile passions, the death of the American dream, coming to terms with a “Cold Forgiver,” and taking stock of one’s life when one’s past seems longer than his future.
“I’m not dead to the world / I’m not dead to the world / I’m just dead to the world around me,” Roberts sings, before exclaiming brass-and-string-backed triumph, “No! I don’t want to be! Dead to the world around me.” It should be noted that Roberts howls towards the climax singing “Whoa!” and “Ohh!” and “Hey,” but I defy anyone to sharpen his pen to blast Ha Ha Tonka for saying nothing of value, bringing nothing exciting to the table or jumping on a get-rich-quick bus to Top 40 glory.
Ha Ha Tonka are a tight-knit four-piece who have cut their teeth on the road playing crackling, intelligent rock and roll for years, and Lessons is the exciting sound of Roberts, Lennon Bone (drums), Brett Anderson (guitars) and Lucas Long (bass) exorcising personal and career demons while counting every speck inside the hourglass as it drifts downward.*
“Colorful Kids” and “Staring at the End of Our Lives” find Roberts channeling his love of timeless American authors to analyze the weight of time. The latter cites Steinbeck against a jumpy, Graceland-esque sonic palette: “To do it bad is better than to have so much you can not stand it.” “I stand alone,” Roberts sings, “I need somebody else. Help me help myself.” The former pays homage to Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as Roberts sings, “We didn’t have much / We couldn’t care less / Were we innocent? No / Well, maybe I guess we were.” The nostalgia creeps into something more oppressive (“I see me as I was / You as you were / Before the color began to bleed out of us”), the music propels with up-tempo vigor, ultimately exploding into a massive, cleansing bridge that’s drenched in harmony and psychedelic textures. It’s precisely at this moment that you begin to feel the grandeur of Ha Ha Tonka’s gutsy risk-taking on Lessons, and all of those risks pay off thanks to the exquisite production, engineering and mixing chops of Dan Moland (Lucius) and Ryan “The Ryantist” Whitehouse.
Lessons’ themes and status quo-stomping sounds wouldn’t hold up without the title track as the foundation. Even having listened to the song a dozen times by now, I wouldn’t second-guess anyone telling me it was a track either produced by Britt Daniel or performed by Spoon if I didn’t already know truth. The song unfolds with a slow-burning sizzle against a sexy, low-end groove that could have been straight out of Gimme Fiction or Kill The Moonlight. Needless to say, the Lessons’ lynchpin is gloriously distant from any coffeehouse-ready pick-and-shout anthems. Bouncing on the groove with that chant of “I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again,” Ha Ha Tonka fashion the theme into the aural equivalent of a ticking clock heading towards an explosive end. When the clock strikes zero, it’s a forest-razing guitar squall from Anderson that sends Lessons into the stratosphere. The way Roberts gets savage channeling Daniel (My heart is hurting! I don’t know when to say when!) against the electric fury, it’s enough to send goosebumps up your spine 100 times in 100 consecutive listens.
After the theme is written in blood at the heart of the album, Ha Ha Tonka proceed to flesh out the depths and consequences of learned lessons against ever-versatile arrangements. “American Ambition” is more stripped-down in order to let the anguish of Roberts’ laments cut through clearly (“No such thing as the American dream / They couldn’t teach it anymore… Faith is a gamble on somebody else…All my time spent alone for somebody else”), but the maturity in the delicate build-up and the climactic four-part harmonies are beauties to behold. By the time Roberts slips away into the ether, singing “I was born with American / ambition in my blood / I know it’ll be the death of me / if only because,” it irreparably guts you.
The jubilant “Rewrite Our Lives” seems like frontrunner fodder for all those aforementioned genre critics, but the purity of its pain (I’m beginning to believe that I’ve got past now than future left in front of me / I wish that we could rewrite our lives…so many times) wholly justifies the communal refrain. Once the “Hoooo! Yeah!” chorus has kicked in a second time, Roberts starts howling “It’s a brand new start / with a synthetic heart!” in a throat-shredding wail. [I may be 30 the day of this writing, but it pulls me back to those hundreds of times in my 20s when I was in awe of the cathartic bliss I felt listening to Hamilton Leithauser cry out “Can’t you hear me? I’m calling out your name! Can’t you see me? I’m pounding on your door!” on The Walkmen’s “The Rat.”] The lyrics beg like an offered up prayer (à la “Born to Run”), and Ha Ha Tonka understand that this warrants a shout-to-the-heavens payoff.
A galloping rhythm roots “Cold Forgiver” with kinetic energy, but the hushed, delicate vocals and delivery allow the simple poetry of the chorus (“Cold water / Cold river / Cold shoulder / Cold forgiver / When it’s gone, it’s gone forever”) to amount to an unfailingly pretty, if wistful, counterpoint to “Rewrite Our Lives.” With “Cold Forgiver” propped against the barroom piano tinkering and deftly percussive clutter of “Pied Pipers,” the production and sequencing excellence of Lessons becomes increasingly palpable.
It’s this homestretch of genre demolition and melodic zest that really drives home my assertion that Ha Ha Tonka have tapped into something not just great, but adventurous, multifaceted and tuneful – like the thousands of working parts of The Beatles’ The White Album. There is a lot of George Martin in the way Moland and The Ryantist have bolstered Ha Ha Tonka’s strengths in the production of these songs, but most of the well-deserved credit belongs to Ha Ha Tonka’s Beatles-sized hearts and songwriting gifts. They have tapped into feelings that arrest all of us now and again, but rarely are they embedded within lyrics so fulfilling or arrangements so winning.
“I know that the past has arms / because I can feel it hold me tight,” Roberts sings on “The Past Has Arms.” The past starts suffocating him after he bites his tongue from too many times of “feeling important again.” All of our tongues have been bloodied in such a way too many times to count, and we’ve all felt the weight of past history sitting on our chests. As to what those lessons have amounted, Roberts sings, “I set out to prove the world wrong…And all the lessons I’ve learned / have only taught me that I’m stubborn,” on the album closer, “Prove the World Wrong.”
Someday soon, all of us will feel the unrepentant weight of life and time, and we’ll find ourselves muttering, “I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again.” When that day comes, don’t be surprised when you discover the invaluable pleasure playing Ha Ha Tonka’s Lessons on repeat. Ha Ha Tonka dug deep and set their sights high on this album. Not only have the Ozarks rockers succeeded in making one of the most outstanding albums of 2013, but they’ve also unleashed what could go on to become an instant contender for a future desert-island pick.
Ha Ha Tonka’s Lessons is out September 24 via Bloodshot Records. You can pre-order the album on digital, CD and vinyl.
*[For the record, I am writing this review on my 30th birthday, and I can hardly think of a finer record that captures the whole spectrum of feelings commonly associated with such a milestone.]
**This review was first posted on Division St. Harmony on September 16, 2013.
Ha Ha Tonka - "Lessons"
Ha Ha Tonka - "Colorful Kids"
Ha Ha Tonka - "Rewrite Our Lives"
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee.
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel & @DivisnStHarmony and on Facebook.
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