Ha Ha Tonka isn't a band name that evokes strong Southern rock imagery. It sounds more like a rejected character from Mike Tyson's Punch Out than a band that creates guitar-driven, denim-clad rebel anthems steeped in the rich oral mythology of the Ozarks.
But it doesn't take more than a cursory listen to the thick warmth of the guitar riffs and the mournful gospel-influenced vocals that make up Ha Ha Tonka's new album, Death of a Decade, to know it's pure Americana. The only vaguely video-game element is the slight similarity between the tones plucked on the electric mandolin to those of a Pachinko machine. And it's not all that similar.
Word association isn't a new problem for Ha Ha Tonka. In 2007 the Missouri quartet decided to ditch the hippie-jam vibe the band felt they'd locked themselves into with the original name, Amsterband.
"Obviously, we're not very good at naming things," said Ha Ha Tonka's drummer Lennon Bone, with a laugh.
Bone said the band took the new name from Ha Ha Tonka State Park, a cave-riddled region of central Missouri famous for the burnt-out ruins of a stone castle, to show their Ozark pride.
"We knew we weren't going to have to worry about someone else being called that," said Bone.
Ha Ha Tonka has spent the last decade furiously building a reputation as a band to be reckoned with, touring with acts like the Meat Puppets and Violent Femmes. They've also had numerous appearances at CMJ, Lollapalooza and no shortage of showcases at SXSW.
But to Bone, all that is just a matter of trajectory. He said the biggest accomplishment is just managing to be a working band for the last five years. And work they do. Bone said Ha Ha Tonka logged nearly 200 shows last year alone.
And they did it while garnering accolades for their albums from publications across the country. Their 2007 album, Buckle in the Bible Belt, was described by Josh Timmermann from the blog Popmatters as "the best rock record I've heard this year."
The reason fans and critics are paying attention to Ha Ha Tonka is that the band has a knack for taking sounds and themes written off long ago as dusty relics of the eight-track age and filtering them through a modern lens--Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, as the title of their 2009 album put it. And the band is keeping that vibe rolling for Death of a Decade.
"The current album is somewhere between Alabama, which we all grew up on, and Arcade Fire," said Bone.
Death of a Decade starts with a peppy mandolin riff and Southern twanged vocals in "The Usual Suspects," but it isn't long before it descends into dark atmospheric guitar riffs on "Made Example Of" and "Jesusita." The album's title track is a brooding mid-tempo soundtrack for the drive home from a funeral. Even when the mandolin comes back, it's clear this isn't your drunk uncle's Southern rock.
"We get compared to Kings of Leon a lot," said Bone. "Reviewers are looking for modern bands to draw comparisons to. I don't necessarily listen to Southern rock now like I did when I was a kid, so I don't really know who we sound like."
While Ha Ha Tonka has the same rich overtones that Kings of Leon built their sound on, the style isn't the same. Kings of Leon are about as Southern rock as Neil Young, but Ha Ha Tonka sounds ready to pen lyrics telling them off, Townes Van Zandt style.
But that doesn't mean Ha Ha Tonka's sound is retro. Their take on Southern rock is analogous to psychobilly's take on rock 'n' roll, revving it up while imbuing it with a darker vibe and themes. Songs like "St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor" and "Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart" are what the Allman Brothers might sound like in the goateed Spock dimension in Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" episode.
The music is a new breed, perhaps best illustrated by the video to the song "Caney Mountain." The song is a retelling of an Ozark legend about a traveling preacher who sleeps with a woman he meets, drowns her to save her soul, and is then lynched by the townsfolk. The video is an animated version of the story with horrific imagery. That pairing of old themes with a new aesthetic has been the rebirth of many a musical genre, and Ha Ha Tonka may be at the forefront of a renaissance.
"As far as who our contemporaries are, I couldn't tell you," said Bone. "Hopefully we're on the cusp of a new movement in this style."
It's a style that extends beyond the rampant regional poverty, religious zealotry and meth epidemics from which Ha Ha Tonka draws lyrical inspiration. Much of it comes from the gospel themes present in the music. "Hangman," the a cappella opening track from Buckle in the Bible Belt, is a rich exploration of harmonic soul that sounds more like an African-American spiritual than it does contemporary rock. Back-up vocals throughout other songs achieve the same gloomy, yet stoic soulfulness.
But whatever movements Ha Ha Tonka are or are not a part of, whatever genres they may or may not encompass and whatever influences they may or may not be drawing from, there's one simple truth that describes their music:
"It's cool, it's fun, it's rock 'n' roll," said Bone. And mostly: "It's good to drink beer to."