Ha Ha Tonka make the kind of roots rock that fits the mood of America in the summer of 2008. It's restless, edgy and increasingly willing to address the dark side of This Land.
You can almost feel a national mood swing crystallize in the chord progressions of "Up Nights," the anxious lead track of Ha Ha Tonka's debut album. Brett Anderson's piano pierces the certainty of major chords with the sharpness of his minors. Then he flees to the deepest octaves of his keyboard, co-opting the melody in a fit of single-note panic.
There's no nuance to the storyline here. Ha Ha Tonka have said that "Up Nights" is about the tragedy of methamphetamine use in rural America.
This Springfield, Mo. band formed in 2004. Their original name was Amsterband. They shed that moniker during a 2007 makeover that emphasized Ha Ha Tonka's heartland credentials. After all, Ha Ha Tonka is the name of a Missouri state park.
Last Sept. 11, the band released their debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt. The title is a reference to the geographic and social setting of their hometown. The album is both a sonic tour through American domestic woes in 2008 and a musical breakthrough that brings a bit of darkness to the comfort of Southern rock.
"Saint Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor" challenges the premise that mindless allegiance to the flag and religion is patriotic. The electric guitar solos are tense, not pleasant. Where standard country-rock formulas dictate a splash of fist-rocking chords, Ha Ha Tonka frequently insert minor keys that add an uneasy dimension.
The lead singer of Ha Ha Tonka, Brian Roberts, is a cancer survivor, and he's got plenty to say about our broken health-care system on "This Is Not a Cure for the Common Cold."
"I just don't suggest getting sick in America," he wails, as Anderson's piano reinforces the mood with menacing volume.
Kudos to the folks who book music at the Memorial Union for picking Ha Ha Tonka for this Sunday's Memorial Day eve bash on the Terrace. They're a perfect kickoff for the summer of 2008.