While some might argue that scratching your head is part of the fun with Tommy, Tales From Topographic Oceans, or The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, there’s no denying that concept albums are particularly prone to narrative lapses, wanky instrumental passages spotlighting undistinguished instrumentalists, and all manner of miscellaneous bloat. Neil Michael Hagerty (ex-Royal Trux) has stepped into this cesspool of confusion to impose a bit of scientific rigor. Sound research design dictates that an experimenter should isolate his or her variables. Since Hagerty’s recording handle morphed from his own name to the Howling Hex, he’s adopted a project-oriented approach in which each album has one organizing concept. They’re not as wide-ranging as the notions that guided the aforementioned recordings, but they’re a lot more precise. All-Night Fox posed the question “What if I make a whole album of one-riff songs?” Nightclub Version of the Eternal asked, “What if I give up being a hotshot lead guitarist and become the bass player?” Last year’s XI had a more complex organizational conceit; “What if that bass player puts together a whole new band in one month and acts like he’s just another guy in the band?” Woah, dude, you sure that’s not too many variables for a proper assessment?
Earth Junk is much more stripped down, conceptually and musically. The question this time is “What if I make a record with no drums?” Hagerty doesn’t take the easy way out; this is no Nebraska. Only the closing “O Why, Sports Coat?” gives in to the temptation to pair voice and strummed acoustic guitar, and its brevity and easy rhymes prove the good sense of going with an ensemble sound elsewhere. The XI band is gone, replaced by just two confederates, but they generate a lot of sound. The Google-proof Sweeney Tidball’s Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes, and synthesizer are the dominant instrumental voice. Eleanor Whitmore sings on a few tracks, balancing out Hagerty’s yowl with a bit of sweetness. Hagerty plays guitar and electronics.
Earth Junk doesn’t sound like anything else in his discography. However, it does betray Hagerty’s encyclopedic knowledge of rock history, which yields some respectful iconic nods and a few bizarre what-ifs. The syncopated electric piano on “Annie Get Redzy” sounds like Cluster’s idea of funk. Hagerty adheres to the song’s disciplined construction, if not it’s stylistic template, by keeping his guitar reined in; instead of the dishing out the wailing leads he’s capable of, he stacks up tight unison licks that remind me of vintage Thin Lizzy hooks. A couple other tunes honor Hagerty’s Southwestern desert stomping grounds (he’s lived in New Mexico for several years and the record was recorded in Austin, TX). “Sundays Are Ruined Again” resurrects Augie Meyers’ pumping waltz time to take us into Sir Douglas Quintet territory, while its brief spoken intro puts us in touch with the pain of a sports fan in a part of the country where radio is the only way to track your favorite team. And with its dreamy female vocals, insistent bass notes, and echo-drenched guitar licks, “Contraband & Betrayal” sounds a lot like the Young Marble Giants with Duane Eddy sitting in.
So what are the results of this experiment? With change comes freedom and engagement; by clearing the decks and starting over, Hagerty keeps himself interested and the listener amused.