FDF: Hey man, thanks for sharing your bagels and letting me give my two cents about this killer record. You know we go way back with Neil Hagerty, beginning with the Pussy Galore La Historia de Rock tour.
LN: Right, and then there was the notorious incident at the Smell in L.A., where you jumped up on Royal Trux’s stage and joined in on the bongos.
FDF: Man, they already had a percussionist on stage, so you know I’m gonna feel the calling of the drum circle. But Trux was cool with it, and that’s why I love this dude’s music. Neil is free, man! He’s not here to, to perform his recorded arrangements or to be your internet personality for easy consumption. Dude does his own thing!
LN: Certainly, Neil Michael Hagerty has always pursued an idiosyncratic vision, but it sounds like you and I agree that Denver, the new album by his post-Royal Trux unit the Howling Hex, finds him at his most inspired in recent memory.
To begin, this is a thematically unified collection of odes to people and places from Hagerty’s hometown for the past five years. I don’t know why this famously peripatetic musician chose Denver to settle down in…
FDF: Oh, I think I know. [Imitates the sound of lighting and pulling from a bong.]
LN: Whatever his reasons, it’s high time someone sought to convey in song the spirit of contemporary Denver, the gateway to the Great Plains and perhaps the emblematic 21st-century boomtown —a city where America’s contradictions of land and landscape (mining and outdoor recreation, the cultivation of natural lifestyle amid urban redevelopment and sprawl) are on full display. Hagerty has enlisted some outside co-lyricists, James Jackson Toth (a.k.a. Wooden Wand) and Alexandra Macchi (a.k.a. Lexie Mountain), to sharpen his characters’ stories amid the Hex’s grizzled, high-energy rock.
FDF: And Denver is another polka album! Boom-pah, boom-pah…
LN: Technically, I think those are Mexican norteño rhythms we’re hearing…
FDF: Boom-pah-pah, boom-pah-pah…
LN: Yes, the Howling Hex have once again embraced the plain two-beat and three-beat that they introduced on their last full-length, The Best of the Howling Hex — which of course, in perverse Hagerty fashion, was an album of all new material. On Denver, the Hex have made norteño their own. That distinctive rhythm, still likely to puzzle the typical rock listener, is now comfortably folded into the band’s instinctive pace and attack on the songs. This ensemble can say a lot with norteño now…
FDF: Including shred! Cuz Hagerty is a total guitar shredder. I mean, here’s a guy who understands free jazz and can just wail, but doesn’t worry about the “getting the perfect tone” or “choosing the right guitar.”
LN: You’re right, his recorded catalog does suggest that Hagerty picks an amplifier tone, or finds a mix on the recording studio board, and then sets down to tape an entire album with those settings. It’s a mark of his distinctive insouciance toward music.
FDF: He just doesn’t care, man! He’s free!
LN: That said, Denver is surprisingly one of the most concise and well-executed albums that I can recall Hagerty having recorded. It finds the band balancing their creative abandon with formal discipline and judicious deliberation — including know when not to use their musical template, at least for one or maybe one-and-a-half songs.
FDF: You’re talking about “Lookout,” the six-minute ballad, right? Man, that track is an epic journey into the spirit, the kind of song Hagerty hasn’t recorded since 1993’s Cats & Dogs by Royal Trux. In fact, I gave “Lookout” my Cats & Dogs test: turned out the lights, shed my clothing, and danced in the candlelight to it. And I’m pleased to report that it passed.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs about the intersection of urban studies and popular music at musicalurbanism.org.