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Better than Before Neil Hagerty's second foray as the Howling Hex adresses the WTF question with an even more puzzling answer

Better than Before

Neil Hagerty's second foray as the Howling Hex adresses the WTF question with an even more puzzling answer

by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor
first published: December, 2005

approximate reading time: minutes

The big one though is SC Coward, which basically gives old world dub roots reggae the Hex treatment with endlessly recycling horns

The Howling Hex
You Can't Beat Tomorrow CD + DVD
(Drag City)

When Neil Hagerty left Royal Trux behind to go score its own goddamn junk, a ripple of loss was felt on the waters. Royal Trux was no one's favorite band, but everyone loved them, that sludgy sleazy weird drug rock. It seemed a little too dangerous, a little too real for indie rock. And then his new project came around The Howling Hex with its techno - primitive take on big beat garage rock, sounding like the Chipmunks were fed some tainted acorns and given a busted drumkit and a trajectory toward slam bam thank you ma'am surrealism. I loved All-Night Fox from earlier this year in its wincing fucked-garage glory, but it could have stood a touch more variety.

Well, variety you get. Haggerty has been whipping Hex into a full on theatrical multimedia spectacle who made some sort of live performance in Chicago that was so mind blowing, even accounts I have read border on incoherence, and they show up with this CD/DVD combo You Can't Beat Tomorrow, and the CD portion shows just how much reach his bizarre arm has. On the onset, "Teenage Doors" kicks out with a jangly guitar, insistent pump-organ/drum machine contraption and some gnarly soloing in the mix, surfing on the beat combo successes of All-Night Fox while adding some depth to the mix. Cobra Heart comes off like a blues record with the most well-placed skip ever, and haze that is either a crowd, or time or drugs or some combination thereof, so funky is its bent repeat that you get hypnotized by it. "Apache Energy Plan" is a catchy little oddball number that reminds me of when the Pixies had their act together. The big one though is "SC Coward", which basically gives old world dub roots reggae the Hex treatment with endlessly recycling horns. One is almost led to believe that this is a sampler act, but its too organic to be. If this is a simulated weediness, then he needs to be the next in demand producer, operating as the Anti-Albini transforming your mere humanity into glowing stars of brilliance.

"Sick and Old" makes a couple appearances, once as a lurchy raw guitar scrapper and again at the end as a psychedelic drug dream, bookending some more fine moments like moody jungle stomp of "Diamond Tank", the mantra-like title track issuing forth from the misty mountains and the bizarre reduction of ballroom dance music and waltzes and so forth in "Meet me at The Dance." But every song on the album is completely beguiling. It lopes like a sleepwalking ballerina, or a tap dancer on puppet strings or something. Its dance music actually, now that I really think of it, just not what you normally consider to be dance music. It all culminates in "No Numbers" a rumba of the damned that feels like it combines elements of all the aforementioned tracks and sounds like its wafting up from a bottomless pit. I'm dumbstruck. Its like when you heard Surfer Rosa (the Pixies references come from both having a distinctly individual ramshackle sound and similarity in Hagerty's and young Black Francis' voice) the first time. You think, what the fuck? is this awful or brilliant? You keep listening and get dragged further in until you have listened to it 1000 times and are forced to concede to brilliance.

No answers to the "What the fuck?" question are to be found on the DVD portion, which is basically an absurdist extended video for the album. We discover the Hex is not a studio DJ project as previously postulated, but as a sextet with three guitar players and a harmonica/trumpet player that formulates the Tommy McCook-in-a-k-Hole horn goodness and two vocalists trading off chipmunk vocals. Incredibly tight, as Hagerty sometimes wanders around their practice room hanging up crude-but-brilliant-in-a-way spray paint paintings on a clothesline running throughout. Interspersing this are cheapo animations and a number of image cuts of small town churches, and then a sub-South Park grade animated story about which I am still unsure of the meaning. In other words brilliant and perfect in its weirdness. I want to be Neil Hagerty now, just like I wanted to be David Byrne and Robyn Hitchcock when I experienced their respective eccentric from of macho dada determinism head on. It probably won't last into the morning, but Howling Hex is my favorite band in the world right now, and based on the notches of improvement gained since All-Night Fox, I am dying to see what's next.

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v
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