Ha Ha Tonka records flow thematically, bound together by a premise or idea, but not so tightly as to be concept albums. Initially, the themes were obvious, like Buckle in the Bible Belt, moving towards historical, as evidenced in the album artwork for Novel Songs of the Nouveau South, but for their recent record, Death of a Decade, the idea that emerged from which these songs began surprised me: Michael Jackson’s death. As Brett Anderson explains, every decade their seems to be some iconic political or entertainment figure who passes away, somehow creating endpoints for their times by their death. Jackson was a controversial figure in life, but even his greatest detractors accede that he was one of the greatest entertainers of our era. With Michael Jackson’s passing, it was the death of a decade.
For a rock and roll band, loosely forming their album around the idea of cultural segments being defined by the deaths of icons was really the least of the changes for the band. What really makes Death of a Decade different than their previous records is the addition of the mandolin. After a South By SouthWest (SXSW) “after party” a few years ago, the guys all picked up different instruments and played ridiculous cover songs with their buddies in other bands, and Anderson fortuitously had grabbed somebody’s mandolin. As far as the sound of the songs on DoaD, introducing new instrumentation brings out the rootsy side of their rock and roll tunes. While frequently compared to R.E.M.’s use of the mandolin in the Green and Out of Time albums, Brett really just became enamored with the little instrument and tried to work it into every song he could.
Finding a sound they like and taking it as far as they can has become a theme in itself for Ha Ha Tonka. They discovered their ability to make decent harmonies on tour, driving in the van and deciding to create parts for “Sky Rockets in Flight,” (actually called “Afternoon Delight”) by Starland Vocal Band, but given new life from the Will Ferrelle movie, Anchorman, which the guys had just watched. This extensive use of harmonies grew to the point where they decided “to just record as much vocals as possible” for their last release. Ha Ha Tonka had recorded an a cappella song, “Hangman,” on their first record, but it took quite a while before they were comfortable singing it on tour. One magical day at the Austin City Limits Festival, when it had not rained in ages in most of Texas, the skies opened as Ha Ha Tonka sang this song. The crowd stood in the rain, cheering them on, at one of those mystical moments that only happen at music festivals.
Songs in Episode 1215 Include:
- Ha Ha Tonka, Death of a Decade, “Usual Suspects” and “Problem Solver”
- Ha Ha Tonka, Buckle in the Bible Belt, “Hangman”
- The Pixies, “Debaser”
- R.E.M., “You Are the Everything” (along with “Losing My Religion,” two notable uses of mandolin for R.E.M.)
- Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” (specifically for their collaboration with Brian Eno on this album and the use of African drumbeats and other asynchronous rhythms at Eno’s suggestion, part of the conversation about what producers bring to a project)
- Middle Brother, “Me Me Me”
- Tea Leaf Green, “I’ve Got a Truck”
- One from next week’s show, Episode 1216 New Country Rehab, “Angel of Death”