Neil Michael Hagerty has one of the flat-out best rock names ever applied to an album sleeve. Associations abound around it in a haze of ironic hipster cool and established grit. Simultaneously invoking phonetic recollections of John Paul Jones, George Michael, Neil Diamond, and Merle Haggard, the name sets up an impossibly twisted entanglement of connotation. Somehow Hagerty surpasses this with a fluid aloofness unwilling to settle on any one creative path or persona. From Pussy Galore to his time in Royal Trux and on into an increasingly unusual solo career, he resides in whatever creative terrains inspire him for only so long as they do. That aesthetic restlessness makes him hard to follow and even more difficult to define or describe. Again it comes back to the name and suddenly all those invocated icons embroil into an internal conflict where no one of them retains any position of primacy for long enough to establish dominance. That may make him hard to pin down, but it also makes Hagerty a hell of a lot of fun to hear.
A good deal of that enjoyment emanates from the feeling that Hagerty himself sounds amused. The insularity of his work may not pander to accessibility but the inherent merriment imparts an affable charm. His songs may meander and certain excursions occasionally exceed the threshold of tolerability, but Hagerty hardly ever gets boring because he never sounds bored. Sure, a snide sense of snarky detachment may creep in now and then, but even at his most sarcastic he exudes jubilance.
That resounding joy has been particularly prevalent in Hagerty’s efforts as a solo artist. What is widely considered as his prime within Royal Trux is also the closest Hagerty ever came to sounding stale. While that band seethed with disordered and desperate passion, it also addled Hagerty with expectation. Apart from the band his work has grown even more unhinged and unpredictable. He’s moved beyond having a set sound towards establishing a defining sprit of playfully capricious focus.
With You Can’t Beat Tomorrow, that focus moves beyond just another album. Accompanying the CD is a DVD offering visual perspective on Hagerty’s shifting aesthetic. It’s not his first foray into another medium; Hagerty is a collage artist and published novelist who can also claim a comic book and video work with the Trux. Still this is his first significant statement within another medium credited to the rotating cast of contributors he calls The Howling Hex. Billed as a pilot-episode for a Howling Hex variety showcase, it also makes claims as to where Hagerty and his collective are headed. As such it’s somewhat of a mess and gives little sign of sustainability. The idea of a variety show curated by Hagerty remains an appealing concept but in execution it turns into a muddled montage of non sequitur cuts and edits. It’s not all that enjoyable to watch for the first time and fares worse and worse with successive viewings. Of course it still manages to feel like at least Hagerty is amused by it all and the behind-the-scenes spoof further confirms that notion.
The CD portion of the package proves much more rewarding. As shambolic and imposing as the accompanying video may prove, the album that comes along with it features some of Hagerty’s most outrightly enjoyable work ever. Here Hagerty doesn’t just sound engaged in his art but enthused with it. From freeform noise to transient kraut-blues his work has always had a casual shrugged-off style of nonchalance and in this setting it imparts a certain homeyness. Some of that sentiment can be credited to enlisting The Theater Fire as backing band with their battalion of banjos and brass illuminating Hagerty’s futurist freak-outs with nostalgic luster. Still it’s Hagerty at the helm and he steers the ensemble into intriguing avant-americana territory.
Of course that casual approach cuts the other way too and if the effort suffers from anything at all it’s that the record feels somewhat tossed-off and far too unassuming. There is the feeling that Hagerty is definitely onto something here but behind those hints of greatness resides a slapdash amalgamation of rough diamonds and unfinished masterworks.
There again though is the charm that makes Neil Michael Hagerty every bit as beguiling as his ambiguous namesake. The album is as finished as he needs it to be and surely his flighty focus has moved onto an even more uncommon endeavor. At last word from his label, Hagerty’s Howling Hex had swelled to a multimedia collective of Polyphonic Spree proportions. The cult of That Good Old Rock and Roll is surely on its way and the Kool-Aid is sure to be as sweet as it is intoxicating.