Ha Ha Tonka, formerly known as Amsterband, is a band from Springfield, Misssouri. The name Ha Ha Tonka comes from a state park in the Ozarks; Amsterband was, presumably, a nod to the Dutch capital city and, speculatively, perhaps an homage of sorts to Heineken and/or weed. (The name-change was a good call, guys.) Springfield is the Show Me State’s third-largest city (pop.150,797 as of July 1, 2006), home to Missouri State University (formerly Southwest Missouri State University), and about a 45-minute drive from Midwestern entertainment capital Branson.
Buckle in the Bible Belt is the group’s terrific new record (and first as Ha Ha Tonka, following 2004’s Beatchen, released as Amsterband). Its 10 tracks clock in at just under a half-hour. It’s the best rock record I’ve heard this year.
Pretty early in the album — say, mid-way through second track and lead-off single “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” — it’s clear that this is a very good band, a band that lots of people are probably going to be talking about very soon. Think Drive-by Truckers or the Hold Steady, though Ha Ha Tonka sound only a touch like the former and almost nothing like the latter, aside from a flair for regional specificity. Buckle is clever but never smug about it, melodic yet pleasingly rough around the edges, reasonably diverse and cohesive, and smart enough not to wear out its welcome — in short, all the things that a good rock record should be, but that in 2007, most lamentably aren’t.
There’s nothing on the White Stripes’ recent Icky Thump as convincingly roots-rockin’ as “Caney Mountain,” which ditches guitars and drums around the two-minute mark for repeated chants of “high shined sequined buckle in the middle of that Bible Belt” (a mouthful made surprisingly catchy) before they’re allowed to rejoin the party. Power-pop hook kings the New Pornographers couldn’t manage a track as infectious as Ha Ha Tonka’s “Falling In” on their latest, Challengers — and they’ve got Neko Case! Trust me, folks, this is really strong stuff.
“Falling In,” my personal favorite on Buckle, has to be one of the year’s stranger two minutes of music. The melody is lovely, wistful but light, vaguely reminiscent of something off the Shins’ first record but with a bit more muscle to it. It’s a fitting backdrop for a nice indie-rock love song, and passive listening would suggest that’s just what we’re in for: “There’s no other place I wanted to be…I can’t get her off my mind.” Right. Closer listening, however, (or a peek at the lyrics booklet) reveals a decidedly weirder mini-narrative: “My skin burnt and she started laughing / What am I gonna do?” Not your typical love song territory.
Rather, this is the sort of economic, oblique look at imperfect young love that the White Stripes used to pull off with similar ease and brilliance. Alas, it’s a long, bumpy path road from “Fell in Love with a Girl” to “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told).” Springfield, Mo.’s finest may find themselves headed down that road sooner than they think. At the moment, they seem roughly one impressive CMJ showing and a few critical raves away from garnering the sort of attention they deserve. Hope this is a start. Psst … Pass it on.