Rock criminally neglects the mandolin, an instrument too often relegated to album-ending acoustic ballads or cash-in unplugged records. So the high, tight strums stand out on Ha Ha Tonka’s third album, Death of a Decade, as Brett Anderson plays the lead riffs on “Usual Suspects,” lending the song an aerodynamism that makes it an ideal opener. Elsewhere, he shades in the songs the way an artist might use a pencil to add subtle shadow. The mandolin, more prominent here than on previous Ha Ha Tonka albums, distinguishes the band from so many throwback rock acts, complementing the band’s broadly gospel harmonies and their smart lyrics.
Death needs such distinctions. It’s a fine album that often lapses into anonymity, that never quite rocks as hard and as consistently as it should. Ha Ha Tonka have never mastered the storytelling chops of the Drive-By Truckers or the Hold Steady, but with each album, the Missouri quartet struggle to carve out their own niche as Ozark rockers. Their debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt, offered up a handful of ballsy, blustery songs about regional identity and healthcare woes, and the follow-up stripped their sound to an acoustic shambles, which makes Death sound like an attempt to split the difference between the two.
It works for a while. Anderson’s mandolin races through “Made Example Of,” with its rambunctious chorus and Ozark koan chorus: “If you don’t change where you’re going, you’re gonna end up right where you’re headed.” Anderson sells the line like hard-won wisdom. But the Ozarkade Fire chorus of “Jesusita” can’t convey the gospel fervor of the lyrics, and “Hide It Well,” despite its eloquent picking, halts the album’s momentum for an acoustic interlude. On the second half of Death, Ha Ha Tonka struggle to regain the excitement of the first, with “Dead Man’s Hand” sounding like a Travis B-side and “Problem Solver,” despite Anderson’s exhilarated vocals, never quite gets moving.
Ha Ha Tonka are a band on a mission to parse Ozark identity in the 21st century, to do for that region what the Truckers have done for the South and the Hold Steady for the Twin Cities. But on Death, those heady pursuits hinder rather than help these songs, weighing them down with too many bulky concepts that slow the pace and dull the impact. Only the mandolin sounds truly purposeful and unique.