Ha Ha Tonka
“Death of a Decade”
A couple of rootsy, passionate, scruffy groups such as Mumford & Sons did their thing at the Grammy Awards this year, exposing their music to a relatively vast audience in one fell swoop. Mumford’s music is fine, but it’s a shame that Ha Ha Tonka couldn’t have taken that group’s spot. The Missouri quartet is not only authentically scruffy, it tears at the heart of American roots music with every chord like Mumford only pretends to, and its new record, “Death of a Decade,” basically oozes passion for the craft.
Named for a park in its home state, Ha Ha Tonka has been working since the turn of the century at a formula that marries lilting country harmonies (think Carter Family) and the muscular Midwestern swing of John Mellencamp to a folk-rock mainline. On this third record, the group manages this impressively: “The Humorist,” “Problem Solver” and especially “Westward Bound” sound like a band that has not only learned the difficult lessons that working, touring bands have to learn but figured out how to apply them.
“You couldn’t hear my confession / I swear, I was just about to change,” vocalist Brian Roberts intones on the title track, sounding like a man who has a past he’d like to forget. That the instruments and voices behind him sound that way too is the part Ha Ha Tonka gets and that many of their contemporaries — including most of those at the Academy of Country Music Awards — don’t.
On second thought, the Grammy crowd probably doesn’t deserve Ha Ha Tonka. Let’s make “Death of a Decade” our little secret, okay?
- Patrick Foster
“Westward Bound,” “The Humorist,” “Death of a Decade”
Ha Ha Tonka performs Friday at Red Palace, 1210 H St. NE. Visit www.redpalacedc.com.
This modest yet auspicious debut is sure to appeal to anyone who believes that country music has become the new pop and is none too happy about it. An unapologetic heir to the buttoned-down neo-traditionalism of Alan Jackson and George Strait, Craig Campbell sings in a rich, unhurried baritone and favors gimmick-free arrangements that feature swinging twin fiddles and careening steel guitar. None of which is surprising, given that his album’s producer, Keith Stegall, was the force behind Jackson’s biggest hits and wrote the chart-topping single “I Hate Everything” for Strait.
A native of Georgia, Campbell is proudly rural and committed to the ties that bind. “Family Man,” the record’s first single, extols the virtues of fidelity and commitment with the warmth and sincerity of Don Williams. “My Little Cowboy,” a Southern rock ballad beefed up by dual electric guitars, reflects specifically, and with insight, on the relationships between fathers and sons.
Campbell’s paeans to country living don’t exactly break new ground, rife as they are with stock references to the likes of “dirt roads,” “dippin’ Skoal” and “hearts carved in a pecan tree.” Nevertheless, his songs often hinge on memorable twists or turns of phrase, such as in “Fish,” a languorous swamp ballad. Opening with a bit of would-be double-entendre about the first time that he and his sweetheart “did it,” Campbell quickly reels listeners in, revealing, with a wink, that the “it” in question indeed had to do with baiting a hook.
- Bill Friskics-Warren
“Fish,” “My Little Cowboy”
“How to Become Clairvoyant”
Robbie Robertson, former guitarist and chief songwriter for the bumptious, watershed ’60s outfit the Band and a (very) occasional solo artist, is a virtuoso teller of other people’s tales. On “How to Become Clairvoyant,” his first solo disc in 13 years and his best since his self-titled solo debut, Robertson excavates his own history for the first time. “Clairvoyant” is as close to a musical autobiography as it’s possible to get.
It’s all here: The formative years (“Straight Down the Line”), the lost weekend of the ’70s (“He Don’t Live Here No More”), the rise (“When the Night Was Young”) and dissolution of the Band (“This Is Where I Get Off,” with a key line, “Everything you leave behind / Catches up in another time,” that’s a bumper-sticker summation of virtually all of Robertson’s greatest songs).
“Clairvoyant” takes a leisurely tour of blues, folk, rock and Native American rhythms, everything coated with a heavy layer of atmospherics and an even heavier coating of seriousness; everything delivered in Robertson’s signature talk-singing style.
“Clairvoyant” is stuffed with guest stars of every stripe: nostalgic (Steve Winwood), unlikely (Trent Reznor, Tom Morello) and super-size: The disc began as a collaboration with Eric Clapton, who co-wrote several tracks here. He duets on “Fear of Falling,” the only track on which Robertson seems to lose his footing, probably because it sounds like an Eric Clapton song — a middling Eric Clapton song. On a disc that is at its best when it’s wandering the back roads of Robertson’s past, it’s an unnecessary detour.
- Allison Stewart
“Straight Down the Line,” “He Don’t Live Here No More,” “This Is Where I Get Off”