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The Howling Hex - XI

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Artist: The Howling Hex

Album: XI

Label: Drag City

Review date: Sep. 6, 2007

In the fall of 2005, at the conclusion of an interview/photo shoot in Brooklyn, I mentioned to Neil Michael Hagerty that I thought his solo work was stronger than the scattershot Royal Trux catalogue. “That’s unfortunate,” he quipped as he shuffled out the door to hail a cab. (Eds: Snap!)

Hagerty has made a career out of being difficult. As a member of Pussy Galore and Royal Trux, he kicked out jams that confounded audiences yet kept them coming back for more. As a solo artist, first with recordings under his own name and now as The Howling Hex, Hagerty has furthered his tradition of forcing listeners to expect the unexpected.

XI is the fourth album since Hagerty adopted The Howling Hex as full-time band name. However, with members rarely lasting for more than one record, it’s a band in name alone. With XI he has once again pulled a lineup switch. Guitarist Mike Signs is the only former Hexer still hanging on from the last album. This time ’round the band consists of Hagerty, Signs, percussionist Phil Jenks, drummer Andy Macleod and saxophonist Rob Lee.

Hagerty has also continued to try to remove himself from the spotlight, dividing songwriting and lead vocal duties between the band’s five members. While it’s grand to see Hagerty being such a team player, it’s questionable as to whether fans will be quite as accepting of his shirking of frontman status.

Fortunately, Hagerty has never seemed to give a damn what we think. There are other motivations for his music and on XI they have gelled into the most in-your-face, cocksure rock record of his career.

Whereas past efforts have found the Hex dealing in lengthy riff worship, XI is taut and lean. Lee’s horns lend a soul swagger that elevates tracks such as “Fifth Dimensional Johnny B. Goode” from funk-punk throwaway to greasy sleaze-rock keeper.

With Signs chucking appropriately caustic riffs while Hagerty struts across the frets of his bass and Lee lays down sweaty sax blasts, “Keychains” harkens back to the jet-fueled soul of the Neil Michael Hagerty & the Howling Hex album. It, along with the smoked-out ballad “Martyr Lectures Comedian,” is the most direct, hook-filled songwriting that Hagerty has contributed since his pre-Hex days.

While their shadow lurking leader is in fine form, the rest of the band brings A-list material to the table as well. Macleod’s “Live Wire” is a fist-pumping punk burst. Jenks and Signs’ “Dr Slaughter” is Black Sabbath fright done up as humid, New Orleans bar squall. “Save/Spend,” penned by Lee, is the most jam-friendly track: a galloping, cowbell-punctuated funk cut with plenty of space for the guitars and horns to get loose.

“Theme,” the only track where the entire band nets a songwriting credit, is a grand exhibition of the group’s road-hardened chops — and in perfect backwards Hagerty style, it closes the album. Over a shambling, junkie-rock riff and shambolic percussion, saxophones call and cough, and the group gather ’round the mic to shout out a throat-testing chorus. It’s burned out and over in little more than two minutes, but while it lasts it’s quite a howl.

By Ethan Covey

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