It's easy to lump Ha Ha Tonka in with Americana-styled bands like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, and that's fine, because these guys plow a similar field, but they do it with a sharp, literate vision that sets them apart, a bit like Paul Simon fronting Big Star, and the group's albums take on large themes and concerns, and if they aren't exactly concept albums, well, they're definitely shaped around concepts. Ha Ha Tonka's 2009 album, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, for instance, drew its inspiration and inner coherence from Harold Bell Wright's The Shepherd of the Hills, a novel of life in the Ozark hill country near the turn of the century, and it was an impressive release, intelligent and balanced. Lessons, the band's fourth album, was inspired by illustrator and children's book author Maurice Sendak's musings on creativity, and if that sounds like trouble, well, it isn't, because again, it's a thematically balanced set that touches on issues of aging, not reaching goals, damaged dreams, and the hope of rewriting one's life, all done with bright, shifting melodies, gorgeous four-part harmonies, and the kind of confidence that can only come from a band that knows exactly what it wants to do. Lessons has a fuller and more lushly orchestrated feel than the previous three albums, but only by degree, and while this album expands Ha Ha Tonka's sonic palette, it doesn't fundamentally change it. Among the many highlights here are the Paul Simon-like opener "Dead to the World"; the shifting and arresting "Arabella"; the title track "Lessons," which bemoans having to learn the same lessons over and over again; the stomping, bouncing, and loping "Rewrite Our Lives"; and the gentle acoustic "Prove the World Wrong," which builds to a crescendo before falling back. In all, this set is one of Tonka's best, and this is a band to watch. They're not afraid of tackling big ideas and themes, and they're not afraid to take chances and build their sound forward.
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett