DO YOU LIKE AMERICAN MUSIC? Neil Michael Hagerty Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll

Music Features
DO YOU LIKE AMERICAN MUSIC? Neil Michael Hagerty Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll
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Jun 30, 2003, 04:03

When Dick Hebdige penned the perennial Sociology tome Subculture: The Meaning of Style, he must have forgotten the chapter on Neil Michael Hagerty.

Neil Michael Hagerty is the kind of artist the music industry has little use for these days. His constant development, challenging both himself and his audience at every turn when he could just as easily rest on his laurels, is not something easily marketed to demographics and focus groups. He embodies the kind of lucid, intellectual cool Hebdige aspires to dissect in his book.  Â

Similar to Neil Young's legendarily fierce resistance to compromise, the younger Neil is one of only a handful of artists today making records for roadtrips. Records you want to lend to friends. Records you buy two of, so your girlfriend won't ruin your only copy.

Hagerty's latest album, the instantly classic The Howling Hex, is his third since the sort-of-official end of Royal Trux, the band he shared with Jennifer Herrema for well over a decade. “On the first two (solo) records,” he says, “I was very concerned about not repeating or absorbing benefits from my previous bands, but now I feel divorced from all that.” An interesting word choice, in light of the fact that The Howling Hex is the Neil Michael Hagerty album that most closely resembles an official nail in the Royal Trux coffin, and as close to any official kind of figurative divorce as has been made public.

While including live versions of older songs on a new album is a delicate practice that can seem extraneous and pompous in the wrong hands, the three live performances on The Howling Hex show the metamorphosis of the tunes when taken on the road, an important distinction when dealing with Hagerty's music. “The versions show how much the songs will change if you go to the show. It's a big part of what I think is important about playing live.” The songs, recorded in the midst of much touring and mostly improvised by the band, give a solid impression of what it's like seeing Hagerty and his band transform each song into something you can't get sitting at home listening to the albums.                        Â

If it seems that the constant touring reflected on The Howling Hex, alongside Hagerty's other endeavors (he's written a comic book and a novel, moonlights in several one-off projects, and has produced several records), keep Hagerty spread a bit thin, it's how the man prefers it, admitting to being somewhat addicted to his work. Of his prolific nature, Hagerty says “I get up every day and work. I like to imagine it's like any laboring job, just very simple and not about dominance.”    Â

The labor seems to have paid off, as The Howling Hex finds Hagerty following the muse into uncharted territory, blazing through a history of American music while retaining a distinct style throughout. Covering everything from country blues reminiscent of Beggars Banquet (“Gray”), to cracked soul (“Watching The Sands”), dub (“Witch”), tape loop experiments (“Clermont Heights”), and Mort Garson-styled analog synth creepiness (“aepII”), it's obvious that nothing is off limits. Most surprising, however, is the juxtaposition of “I Remember Old John Brown,” an odd folk song (even the title evokes Harry Smith's anthology) that relies not on the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, but on a decidedly cheesed-out organ melody that wouldn't seem out of place on a Raymond Scott record. It's these types of brazen (and mostly successful) experiments that continue to endear The 'Hag to his fans. Of course, there are also some of us who still just enjoy playing a bitchin' air guitar solo now and again.

Casting aside what he refers to as the self-indulgent connotations and consequences of making a double album, Hagerty says “I usually just get a sound stuck in my memory and then pursue it and try to relate it to something that's going on out here.” Luckily for us, Hagerty's interpretation of the things going on “out here” are far removed from the kind of mundane reality most people associate with their waking hours, making The Howling Hex a record who's ambition, eloquence and style cannot be overstated.

The man himself puts it even simpler. “I travel a lot,” he says, “and see a lot of people and places, and I want to report on it. I hope that's worth something.” Then he's off to continue working, because, while most guitarists would sleep quite well after being heralded in Metal Hammer magazine as “one of the finest guitarists… ever seen on a stage,” The 'Hag is having none of it. After all, the muse, like rust, never sleeps.

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