Yes, Ha Ha Tonka are spirited and twangy without ever pretending to be crusty beyond their years. Yes, the band's goofy name belies their directness and exuberant, tight live sets. Yes, they represent rural Missouri with a conflicted eye, writing songs that tackle social and religious tensions, most notably "St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor" from the group's 2007 Bloodshot Records debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt.
But forget the bold strokes for a moment. What begins to stick out on 2009's Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, and more so on last year's Death of a Decade, are the elusive things that make for uncertainties and repeat listens.
Tonka's still a beamingly earnest rock band, fond of vocal harmonies and clean-toned guitars played hard. But the lyrics on Death sound like character sketches and semi-guarded personal musings. Brian Roberts sings "The Humorist" from the viewpoint of someone who "never thought I was all that funny," and repeatedly asks what might be a couple sarcastic questions: "Ain't it entertainin'? Isn't it appealing?" It's never a complete picture, but it makes you curious about the character's exasperation and weariness.
Buckle had a youthful stomp, and that isn't lost even in Death's nods to defeat - like "Lonely Fortunes," in which Roberts sings: "We can blame it on our circumstances/Oh at least we took the chances/We had to." The musical excitement always lingers somewhere, warning us not to underestimate the songs' troubled subjects, and on tracks like "Problem Solver," it returns in full, Brett Anderson's mandolin hook somewhat replacing the piano that gave Buckle's opener, "Up Nights," its giddy beat.
The band's web bio makes reference to Winter's Bone, the "transition into manhood" and "a certain wisdom that exists in the hills of the Ozarks." Easy there: Ha Ha Tonka deserve credit for their subtle achievements. Plenty of bands can attempt grand themes and make that heady initial sprint. But since their debut, Ha Ha Tonka have turned their straightforward energy inward, populating their songs with mysterious but somehow startlingly familiar people.