Ha Ha Tonka’s music has always been richly steeped in Americana, folk and bluegrass. But on Lessons, the Southern Missouri quartet’s fourth and most diverse full-length, these genres are starting points. The familiar stylistic signifiers — four-part harmonies, prickly mandolin, stomping acoustic guitar — merely add texture to songs that, at various points, conjure Shearwater’s strummy introspection (“Staring At The End Of Our Lives”), Spoon’s compact pop (the bass-heavy, wrinkled title track) and Wilco’s rugged alt-country (“Pied Pipers”). Whimsical piano, plush organ and jagged electric guitar contribute additional color.
Alongside this sonic progression, Ha Ha Tonka continue to broaden their songwriting voice. Lessons is a vulnerable, life-affirming, acutely self-aware record that addresses both personal foibles and strengths. (The band members come by this wisdom — and the album title — honestly: Frontman Brian Roberts says the record was jumpstarted by an inspiring 2011 NPR interview with the late author Maurice Sendak.) “I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again,” Roberts pleads wearily on the title track, before contradicting himself in the very next line: “I keep learning the same lessons over again.” Yet despite this frustration spiral, he’s committed to self-improvement and figuring out his lot in life, as well as staying positive. “No, I don’t want to be dead to the world around me,” the frontman cries over and over again on “Dead to the World,” as majestic strings pirouette around his words, buoying his pained optimism.