Neil Hagerty has an amazing talent for challenging himself and his listeners. Though the Howling Hex name might suggest a more stable lineup than his Neil Michael Hagerty albums had, Hagerty has actually switched up his cast of supporting musicians as much with this project as he has on his solo albums. On XI, he shakes things up again with a completely different crew backing him -- resulting, ironically enough, in the Howling Hex's most band-like album yet. The Hex's latest members -- guitarist/vocalist Mike Signs, saxophonist/flutist/vocalist Rob Lee, and percussionists/vocalists Phil Jenks and Andy McLeod -- also chip in on singing and songwriting duties, giving XI the feel of a rotating, revue-like show. This isn't a coincidence: the band honed these songs on the road and then committed them to tape in three days, so XI often seems more like an especially well-recorded concert album -- recorded at a picturesquely grimy dive, of course -- than something made in a studio. It sounds like the Howling Hex had a great time making the album, coming off like a very hip, brassy house band on Hagerty's "Keychains" and closing with the furious noise-funk of "Theme," which would work as well as a show opener as it does as a showstopper. Though all of XI bears Hagerty's knotty, playful touch, it's actually Signs who contributes the most songs to the album and pushes the band toward a lively, even danceable sound. His choogling rhythms and freewheeling solos on "Fifth Dimensional Johnny B. Goode" make clear why he's a part of Hagerty's band, and his hooky songwriting on "Lines in the Sky" and "Everybody's Doing It" helps hold the album together. The songs from the Howling Hex's other members span McLeod's chugging "Live Wire," which sounds like prime fodder for bar jukeboxes until a blistering free jazz sax solo tears the song in two; Jenks' spoken word/noise interlude "Let Fridays Decide"; and Lee's frenzied, understandably sax-heavy "Save/Spend," which also makes great use of the Hex's dueling percussionists. All of their work fits in perfectly with Hagerty's own songs, which are some of the album's most laid-back tracks; "Martyr Lectures Comedian"'s trippy, bittersweet warmth and the moody, serpentine funk-rock of "The 88" provide XI's sonic glue with their mellow but catchy vibe. As eclectic as previous Howling Hex albums but more egalitarian, XI is actually less disorienting than some of the albums where Hagerty was the main creative voice. It's also the Howling Hex's most accessible music since All-Night Fox, which will probably delight some Hagerty fans and disappoint others, but just goes to show that change is the only constant in his projects.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares