At first listen, it would be easy to instinctively lump Ha Ha Tonka in with the slew of other folk-tinged rock bands that have burst on the scene the past few years. It’s certainly a fair comparison, and they could definitely hold their own on a bill with the likes of Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, Lone Bellow and even Mumford & Sons.
However, there’s just something different about Ha Ha Tonka. They stand out from the pack because of their rawness. Their sound seems more pure, more natural. Rather than folk-rock, their wheelhouse is in roots-rock Americana – a la The Drive-By Truckers, Old 97’s and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Hailing from the Ozarks, this four-piece gets its name from a state park located a couple of hours away from its hometown of West Plains, Mo. While the group has since signed on with Bloodshot Records in Chicago, it’s clear from their music that the boys never truly left the Ozarks.
That said, their lyrics can be very profound, commenting on such things as socio-economic strife, drug abuse and the nation’s health care system while also dropping references to Thoreau and Dostoyevsky.
Lead singer Brian Roberts’ voice would best be described as a toned-down version of Caleb Followill from Kings of Leon.
Admittedly, all of this talk of purity and whatnot is referring mostly to the band’s earlier work, such as the 2007 debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt, and 2009’s Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. Both albums are solid and were well-received, but it wasn’t until 2011’s Death of a Decade, that Ha Ha Tonka entered a new stratum.
Some of the bigger tastemakers on the indie scene took notice of the band’s more polished sound. The track “Rewrite Our Lives” even popped up during the telecast of that year’s NLCS.
With its latest release, Lessons, which came out this past September, the band seems to have found a comfort zone between its earliest work and the more-rocking Death of a Decade.
Whereas the songs on each of its prior efforts had something of a uniform feel, Lessons is much more eclectic. For example, there’s a little Black Keys, some Dawes, a touch of Spoon and even a dose of Vampire Weekend for good measure.
Just listen to what is arguably the best song in the band’s catalog, “Colorful Kids”.
The group will be doing a very brief tour through the Midwest next month — including a stop in Chicago on Jan. 11 — before turning their attention to SXSW in mid-March. With any luck, the showcase in Austin will help propel the band to an even higher level.