Some really good music has come to us from the mountains so far this year. First, from New York’s Adirondacks, we had the Felice Brothers with their brilliant Yonder Is the Clock. Now, from the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Ha Ha Tonka have returned with their sophomore album for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. While they have chosen to emphasize electric guitars more on this album as compared to their first (2007’s Buckle in the Bible Belt), there are musical similarities between the two bands, the most notable of which is that both bands have the intriguing habit of setting very dark tales to music that doesn’t always seem to match the lyrical mood. Somehow it all works.
Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South is based on a 1907 novel by Harold Bell Wright called “The Shepherd of the Hills,” which is an Ozark classic. The novel tells the story of a man who leaves the city to live in the hills, where he finds peace and manages to overcome the losses he has suffered. This is southern music, and while it may be easy to draw musical comparisons with southern brothers Kings of Leon, this album asks you to dig deeper for its meaning. The lyrics can be sort of inscrutable, which means that the digging isn’t always easy, but there are rewards for the intrepid. In the end, it’s sort of a virtual tour of the south, replete with religion (“Walking on the Devil’s Backbone”), lynching (‘What Shepherd of These Hills”), mob violence (“Thoreau In the Woods”), and lost childhood (“Word Climbing”).
“The Outpouring” is a tale of violence, and an inquiry into the issue of individual responsibility, which reoccurs throughout the album. In the album’s best song, “Giant Strides,” we meet a man who tells us that he’s “a cutthroat now, chomping on a bit I can’t spit out.” The song ends with a haunting piano section that sounds as if it’s being played in someone’s front parlor at the dawn of the 20th century.
What’s perhaps most amazing about Ha Ha Tonka is that this is a recording so full of confidence that you would think it came from a band that has been around for many years. This is the kind of concept album that can give the idea a good name. Of all the young bands worth watching these days, Springfield, MO’s Ha Ha Tonka is at the top of my list.