You may have missed it because it wasn’t extensively publicized, but there was an election in America a couple of weeks ago.
In it, California and Missouri landed on opposite sides of the electoral spectrum ““ one went blue and one went red. Sure, that’s a massive oversimplification of the electoral process. But here’s the great thing. When it comes to music, red and blue states on a map about the electoral process couldn’t matter less.
And so, at the Crane Lane a day or two after the election, this Californian saw one of the best bands he’s seen this entire semester: Ha Ha Tonka, a southern rock and folk-rock group from Missouri. Now, before you think Tonka toy trucks, the band’s name is an homage to a state park in the members’ home state of Missouri.
Ha Ha Tonka has a lot of music on iTunes, with my favorite being “Death of a Decade,” the band’s outstanding most recent album.
To begin with, the music skill in the band is top-notch. Mandolin, guitar, bass, drums, all the instruments on stage were played excellently. But the most impressive characteristic of the band was that all four members had great voices. And that resulted in four-part harmonies on just about every song that elevated the set to new heights, floating on top of warm washes of Americana sound. It’s something special to hear.
In one particularly haunting track, the band performed a song off of “Death of a Decade” a cappella. The live version outshined the already great album version. The band gets extra props for having the guts to perform an a cappella song in such a lively pub as The Crane Lane.
The next aspect of Ha Ha Tonka’s music that sets them apart from the rest of the musical crowd is the depth and variety of its lyrics. On one side are songs tinged with love. One of the most fun songs would have to be “Usual Suspects,” an upbeat ode to a girl who likes her love interests a little less than straight edge, featuring lines such as “Lining us up, boys we all look guilty / She’s gonna pick the baddest apple” and “Oh her Daddy isn’t watching her now / And all the usual suspects are here.”
From there, songs range to laments of desperate finances (or, rather, the sense of unease that entails) to “Dead Man’s Hand,” a fantastic lilting song about the consequences of life lived recklessly: “All around me are wasted plans / Everywhere you look no matter where you stand / Don’t get caught with a Dead Man’s Hand.”
Perhaps my favorite song, however, is “Death of a Decade,” one of the most majestic songs on the album. Some could see it as a sad song looking back on a decade that will be missed, though I don’t know that I would necessarily agree with that. The song starts slowly and builds to an outstanding chorus, filled with soaring guitars and beautifully atmospheric vocal harmonies.
In any case, it seemed oddly appropriate considering the recentness of the election (whichever way you voted): “It was the death of a decade / It was the catalyst for a new age.”
I don’t know why Ha Ha Tonka isn’t a household name in music. The members of this band certainly have the musical skills to be a major player in the national indie Americana music scene. And the band members were clearly having so much fun on stage that it was impossible for me to resist becoming an instant fan.
Here’s to hoping this decade brings the music of Ha Ha Tonka to the ears of millions.
Have you made any indie music discoveries lately? Let Bain know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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