The inspiration for Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South comes from the 1907 novel The Shepherd of the Hills. Like that novel’s protagonist, Ha Ha Tonka spend this album wandering through the South, mining bloody pasts and personal demons in search of some hope for the future, some slight redemption. As themes shift, so does the sound of the record, making for an album that is both eclectic and dark, moving through blues and folk traditions at every turn.
After crafting a collection of catchy songs with Buckle in the Bible Belt, Ha Ha Tonka have taken a major step forward with this full-fledged album. The sound here is moodier and, as a result, fuller than their older work, and it’s affecting all the way through. As the band touches on major pieces of history, wandering through lynch mobs (“The Outpouring”) and nearly pandemic violence (“What Shepherds of These Hills?!”), the album remains grounded in personal pain. Mossy rocker “Walking on the Devil’s Backbone” takes us through a barroom of self-destructive drunks trying their worst to forget their pain. “Hold My Feet to the Fire” looks at the conflicted anguish of religious guilt. And “A Siege of Sorts” is the collective sigh of a town defeated by a long and deathly history.
But to identify the themes running through the album doesn’t quite do it justice. Ha Ha Tonka offer no solutions in these oft-visited pieces of history. Instead they move through them and try to capture their sound. And they do brilliantly, combining their own revival zeal and harmonies with muddy folk (“So Quiet, They’re Loud”), pastoral pop (“Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart”), and moody rock (“The Horse In Motion”). And as they move from sound to sound, they don’t pretend at full understanding. Nothing here is simple or easy. When they sing “we will all be condemned,” they mean it as redemption. And lines like “only Dostoevsky could kill a pair like us” tap into a dark and ominous pride that can come with self-destruction.
Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South is a great accomplishment and, even with it’s dark themes, a tuneful and bright listen throughout. Despite their lofty goals on this album, Ha Ha Tonka is first and foremost a great rock band. And it’s a hell of a thing that the band gets to have it both ways. They’ll make you pump your fist while they break your heart.