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Rhythm & Views

Neil Michael Hagerty

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Having been a big fan of now-defunct Royal Trux and Neil Michael Hagerty's solo work for several years now (and written more than a few reviews and features for both acts in these very pages), it's always exciting to hear what Neil's been up to and to try to convey his genius to the musically interested. However, I've often felt like those cheerleaders in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High who, in an attempt to get their schoolmates pumped for a football game at a pep rally, end up getting the last bite of someone's hotdog thrown at them, and hear "you suck!" instead of "go team!" I guess you could say that I just don't get why more people don't "get" Royal Trux or NMH.

As one half of Royal Trux, along with Jennifer Herrema, NMH spent the '90s deconstructing rock and roll, through the lens of Ornette Coleman's theory of improvisation, Harmolodics and giving off subtle referential hints to his love for the rockin' boogy of early '70s Stones, free jazz, noise and maybe even a little Grateful Dead. For proof, check out any of the 10 albums recorded under the Royal Trux moniker, or NMH's first two solo albums (which, admittedly, aren't a great representation of what he is capable of).

After said solo albums and little more recognition (despite a tour with Wilco), NMH is back with perhaps his best work ever, which also serves as the name for his band, The Howling Hex (comprised, mainly, of drummer Tim Barnes and longtime bassist Dan Brown).

As double albums go, Hex is everything and more that a fan could ask for, as well as being a perfect introduction to NMH. It's 21 songs cover three different recording sessions, as well as three live songs from 2002. Plus, just about every sound and style that NMH has worked with in the past decade is presented here.

There's the full-on boogie rock of "Firebase Ripcord" (the album's opener) and "Fat Street"; the straight-up gritty pop of "Out of Reach"; and the chooglin' CCR-esque "Brooklyn Battery" and "Car Commercial" that are most memorable of his work in Royal Trux.

NMH even incorporates sax into a couple songs here (the aforementioned opener, and the impressive "Watching the Sands"), in which Tortoise and Sea and Cake drummer and producer John McEntire successfully brings to the fore.

Acoustic numbers that were only hinted at with Royal Trux are fortunately given equal footing here. "Gray" and "Greasy Saint" instantly put him in the big leagues of singer-songwriters. The latter even finds him exploring genuine vocal harmonies with perversely touching lyrics ("it's nice to know the things you lost were real"). On the other hand, "Carrier Dog" and "AEP 1" showcase his knack for the simple and catchy blues ditty, with little-to-no accompaniment from other instruments.

Most of the album, however, finds Hagerty an accompanied man. The aforementioned Brown and Barnes join our man and kick out some serious jams on the three live numbers that end three of the four sides here. (That's vinyl speak for you digi-dorks out there.) Most notably is "Energy Plan," which finds NMH and band in high-gear, ass-rocking mode. Its 12-plus minutes is an excellent finale.

Padding out this impressive ensemble are a few odds and ends reminiscent of early Royal Trux recordings. Most notable is "She Drove a Rusted Sled," which features tape loops of drums, bass and vocals with guitar played over them.

Finally, the NMH record that fans have been waiting for, and the one that should enlighten all non-believers to exactly what this guy can do. And if some or most of The Howling Hex doesn't grab you, well kindly keep that last bite of your hotdog to yourself.

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