After digging deep into Southern gothic territory on their album Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South (a song cycle inspired by the writings of Harold Bell Wright), Missouri's Ha Ha Tonka have moved into lighter territory for their third album for Bloodshot Records, Death of a Decade. But rest assured lighter doesn't mean lightweight; if Ha Ha Tonka's lyrical themes and musical frameworks are a bit less dark on this album, their Dixie-fried indie rock is still potent stuff, and with Brett Anderson's mandolin showing a new prominence in the mix and the group's rich harmonies sounding stronger and more confident than ever, Ha Ha Tonka are emphasizing their Southern musical heritage while sounding smart and thoroughly contemporary. As on their previous albums, Ha Ha Tonka are a band with a very real wit, but they tend to dwell on topics that aren't all that comical, and the troubling spiritual quandaries of "Jesusita," the fierce romance of "Usual Suspects," the forlorn bluegrass-infused art rock of "Lonely Fortunes," and the widescreen drama of the title cut show this group's songs read as clever as they sound. And while Ha Ha Tonka have sounded very good on their previous albums, Death of a Decade finds them playing with greater strength and confidence than ever before. Anderson's guitar and mandolin, Brian Roberts' lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Lucas Long's bass, and Lennon Bone's drums and keyboards come together like some aural jigsaw puzzle, with each part fitting precisely with the others while adding an important detail to the overall picture; Ha Ha Tonka are gifted instrumentalists who have learned how to play together, without flash but with a real feel for complementing one another's contributions, and with a clear, uncluttered production from Kevin McMahon, they're presented to better advantage than ever before. It's had to imagine how long Ha Ha Tonka can continue to grow on each album, considering how good they've become, but if you're looking for music that's smart, ambitious, literate, and fun at the same time, Death of a Decade could well be your introduction to your new favorite band.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming