From "birth" to Death... I have had the esteemed
honor of knowing the likes of Brian, Brett, Luke
and Lennon, the four gentlemen who go by the name Ha Ha
Tonka. It was roughly five years ago when I first saw the group
play their amazing music. They may have been called by another name
at that time, but their music was still just as timeless. Now, with
the release of a new album, it has officially marked the next step
in their journey.
Death Of A Decade hit the electronic and physical shelves
this spring. The release was nestled nicely in the middle of an extensive,
nearly sold out, national tour. But the buzz wasn't just contained
to the road; with TV appearances on multiple channels their sound
reached a vast realm of audiences. The hype is high, the response
is positive, but why? What is it about this album that just seems
to be moving the band to the next level? Well, it breaks down into
2 simple elements: harmony and quality. Let me explain.
Harmony. This isn't just talking about the perfect unions coming
from not only the vocals, but the instruments themselves. It's the
harmony of lyrics and notes, as well as the harmony of the songs among
the album. From the first to the last song everything works together.
It's as though there can't conceivably be any other way, any other
order, for these songs to fall. But back to the unions: Ha Ha has
figured out how to make the notes from a mandolin feel as cohesive
with a kit of drums as a guitar feels with a bass. Take "Usual
Suspects," the opening sequence has the mandolin and drums in
a folk dance, both keeping up with a tempo as fun as it is fast, but
making it look effortless. A moment later a warm Southern guitar joins
in, and all of these are finally met with a harmony of vocals. The
energy from this song flows smoothly into "Westward Bound"
without the listener missing a beat. The second song comes to the
table with a lullaby of guitar hums and a breath of bass rhythms.
The vocal harmonies are still there, but this time they poke out when
you're not expecting it.
Alright, so how can quality be measured in an album? One way is how
good the music sounds in your ears. From the computer, to the living
room, to the car, this album sounds excellent no matter where it's
heard. The quality in production had to come from the joint efforts
of Kevin McMahan (The Walkmen) and new comer The
Ryanist. It is easy to hear that extra time and work was put into
the recording, the mixing and the mastering. The levels are perfect;
it feels as though each musician is right next to you. You don't miss
a single string flick or drum beat. "Problem Solver" is
a great example of this. The dynamics in the song come out strong
as it flows through a powerful mandolin chord progression, an echoing
rock guitar, and even a few computer effects (perhaps a preplaced
clap or two?). And even when the tambourine shows up, your ear will
still pick up every shake.
Possibly the best part of Death... is the fact that literally
from the first moment to the very last, the music is incredible. The
last song on the album is "The Humorist" and it is my favorite.
The first couple minutes or so are on the mellower side of things.
A smooth, bluesy guitar strum keeps the melody longing for more. Even
at the 3:00 minute mark you are convinced the guys are going to end
the album with a minimal "frill" selection. That's the beauty
though, because just as you've pretty much written it off they do
what they do best - harmonize. Straight out of a Southern church comes
a Sunday morning choir set in the bodies of four mid-20s men. With
just a small wiggle of a guitar note, you are allowed to completely
experience the true talent they possess. And if that wasn't enough,
they snatch you back into the song with a furied set of distorted
electric notes. They wanted to make sure you didn't forget you were
The album may contain "death", but this is far from the
end of Ha Ha Tonka. With the help of the road and the TV, the world
is just now really getting a chance to hear what they have to offer.
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