This is a story about how I almost never heard my favorite album of 2009.
When I lived in Chicago, I fell in love with Bloodshot Records, outlaw country independent record label of my heart — like Suburban Home, like Merge, like Trekky, I trust Bloodshot to know what I like and to give it to me in the forms of artists I’ve never heard before. So I picked up a Ha Ha Tonka track on a comp here, another on a comp there, and I liked them well enough, but I didn’t really pay much attention to them.
And then Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South came out, and people I trust on the internet raved about it, and, basically, I am a stubborn asshole: I set my heels and decided to ignore this album. It couldn’t be that good. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Until I couldn’t ignore it anymore, because I don’t like to miss things that are amazing, and I threw up my hands and said “FINE!” and bought it from Bloodshot — and the first time I listened to it, I was so blown away that I cried straight through the album. I sat at my desk and wept. (My reaction to really, really amazing albums is to cry or to throw up. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, either.)
That’s how astonishing that album was. It is flawless, I cried straight through it, and when it was finished, I started it over.
It was the album I loved best in 2009.
And they were so, so, so good last night. Good isn’t enough for it; it was an opening set, 45 minutes, torn through with the same kind of fire and passion that lives in their studio work, only wilder and more open. They did “Hangman” and “Pendergast Machine” a cappella, perfectly harmonized and startlingly lovely. A cappella four man harmony takes nuts, and they nailed it, raised goosebumps on my arms with “Pendergast Machine”. Brian played “Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart” for me and — no surprise — I cried. “12-inch 3-speed Oscillating Fan” still rhymes fan with divan, possibly the most perfect rhyme in the history of the universe.
Once upon a time, a coworker of shep.’s described a mandolin part on an album as “using the mandolin as percussion”, and while it’s true on Ha Ha Tonka’s album, it’s the perfect description for Brett’s mandolin parts live in ways I can’t even begin to fathom; when the mandolin came in on “Close Every Valve” I sort of hiccuped and fell over sideways into Ash. Ha Ha Tonka gets such depth out of their four piece sound, out of acoustic guitars and mandolins and dry, thumping bass, and Lennon Bone’s riveting drumming. (No one else I’ve seen this year has played their kit with their hands when necessary. Awesome.)
Brian Roberts’ songwriting — which you can read about here, in Writers On Process’ great interview with him — is so intricate and intimate, Novel Sounds is so much an album that I associate with late nights alone with my headphones, that I almost feel it shouldn’t work as well, loud, breaking and shuddering over your head in a venue, as it does. But it does work, and while the crowd at the 506 last night for headliner Rocky Votolato was polite and interested (and I know the band walked off with at least half a dozen new fans), I’m pretty sure that nobody enjoyed that set more than Ash and I did.
Where “enjoy” is kind of a weak word for what I felt — I am lucky, in that in the last two weeks I have gotten to see, in Two Cow Garage and now Ha Ha Tonka, two of my very favorite bands that almost no one else has heard of, and I am particularly lucky in that both of those sets were absolutely flat-out flawless.
Set list: Caney Mountain/Walking On The Devil’s Backbone/Made Example Of/Thoreau In The Woods/Word Climbing/St. Nick On The 4th In A Fervor/Hangman/Pendergast Machine/Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart/12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan/Usual Suspects
“Made Example Of” and “Usual Suspects” are new songs, and holy crap, y’all, their new album, out next March, is going to be amazing. Ha Ha Tonka have another two weeks of tour dates opening for Rocky Votolato, and seriously, seriously: they are so fantastic, go see them, buy their stuff, tell them they’re awesome.