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Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South

4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Audio CD, June 16, 2009
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Confident and cohesive, the record is a dark treaty on the violent and self destructive tendencies of society at large. Investigating morality and individual responsibility, Ha Ha Tonka take listeners on a complex tour of the South through lynchings and mob violence, sacrifice and reconciliation. On the two trails of life, how does your history affect your present, and how much can you change the future?

It's dense subject matter for any artist, but delivered beautifully on this record by Springfield, MO native sons. This record, driven but contemplative, mysterious but clean, delicate but much more guitar-heavy than the previous effort, is the next logical step in their musical journey and an amazing step, we think. From the junebug-like humming guitars that open the record on "Pendergast Machine", to the tent-revival spiritual a capellas complementing several tracks, this record is a product of whence it came. From religion ("The Holy Ghost, Brother. It's a weapon. I'm walking on the Devil's backbone" on the eponymously named "Walking on the Devil's Backbone,") to retribution ("We know that history will be the harshest judge and we are all condemned", on "What Shepherds of These Hills"), Ha Ha Tonka tackle bleak material with a sense of lightness and perseverance, and a lyrical sensibility that s sharp as a tack.


Novel Sounds is violent, literate, unapologetic Southern rock: With its angelic organ and snarling guitars. The Outpouring conjures the Allmans. Hold My Feet to the Fire drops gospel harmonies over a boogie-­woogie backbeat, and the fingerpickedClose Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart builds from tender to raging without a false note. The Kings of Leon comparisons will be legion. --Spin

Ha Ha Tonka is truly one of the best young bands in America.
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Product Details

  • Audio CD (June 16, 2009)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Bloodshot Records
  • ASIN: B002586YEQ
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #347,913 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Format: Audio CD
I saw these guys live last summer at a small, one-day festival in Madison, WI, and was impressed by their ability to blow pretty much everyone else away, including headliners The Black Keys. I listened to their debut album quite a bit before seeing them headline in a much smaller venue in May. They are a great band live, and the first album captures this energy well. The second album isn't as "foot-stompin'," as they've self-described themselves, and is, admittedly, somewhat of a sophomore slump. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad listen, however. It seems like the interplay between instruments is coming together smoothly, and one could possibly compare their first two albums to their one-time tourmates Meat Puppets. Obviously that is going to get some backlash, as Meat Puppets II is a highly-revered album amongst indie fans and those into Nirvana's unplugged, but I see the potential to create an "Up On The Sun" for their next album.
The Kings of Leon comparisons are going to come in droves, obviously, and if you're a fan of the Followill's I'd advise you to buy both albums. The lyrics are world's apart, however, as you'd have to strain to find the type of straightforward boy-girl songs that populate KoL's catalog. The ace-in-the-hole, as far as I'm concerned, that HHT have is Brett Anderson, who sings lead on one song "Buckle in the Bible Belt" and two on this. It's like the difference between "Free Bird" and the Allman Brothers' "Melissa"--at worst a welcome, uplifting change.
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"Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South" is, as I have discovered, an album that draws its themes from a 1907 novel, "The Shepherd of the Hills," by one Harold Bell Wright, described as "an Ozark classic." I mention this fact to set expectations a bit as this CD is a song-cycle, steeped in tradition and history, washed in blood, and rinsed in repentance.

The music is dark, Southern, and sometimes tense through the grace of understatement. Consider the opening track, Pendergast Machine, which consists of constrained guitars always on the verge of cutting loose, no drums, and a nearly spoken vocal. Perhaps I am hindered in not knowing the novel that forms the basis for this CD, but I can appreciate the stories these songs tell, infused with primal images from southern Protestantism, the echoes of the Civil War, violence and woe, and responsibility.

Before driving you away with the aura of gloom that may be coalescing about now, I would recommend you give this CD a few solid listens to enjoy what's here. I'm sort of surprised to find out this is only Ha Ha Tonka's second release (and I have not heard the band's first recording yet), as these guys seem unafraid to take chances, sometimes underplaying the solos or throwing in a bit of saloon piano or trying out some interesting percussion. Great vocals throughout and high energy guitar really keep things lively--most of the time. (I have no idea who plays what in this band or who sings---the liner notes just lists names.)

A few times the gloom and doom are nearly stifling and drag a song down to the point where I have to skip it (depending on my own frame of ming), and I'm not sure if this morality play has a happy ending or leads to transcendence. But it doesn't matter as long as I keep the volume pegged.
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