Tenacious D fans may not be able to hear “Lies”, the leadoff track on Howling Hex’s latest album, without instantly being reminded of the aforementioned comedy rock duo’s “The Government Totally Sucks” … or maybe that’s just this reviewer. Regardless, the similarities between Knuckleball Express and the D begin and end with “Lies”. What Royal Trux’s Neil Haggerty’s other band’s newest full-length delivers instead are ten tracks of down and dirty blues rock in under a half hour.
If you’re looking to Knuckleball Express for variety in terms of tempo and instrumentation from track to track, look elsewhere. The only variety on this batch of songs comes from the additional vocals provided on occasion from the likes of guitarist Nicole Lawrence and keyboardist Kristine Shafer. In fact, unless you’re holding the album’s tracklist while listening, you’re going to have a hard time discerning changes from moment to moment when the two aren’t involved. This isn’t to say that when listened to in its entirety Knuckleball Express isn’t enjoyable, it’s only to say that only those who are really paying attention will be able to tell the difference between hearing the record played in its intended sequence and on shuffle.
There are only two standout moments on Knuckleball Express, the first being the fun and odd “Mr. Chicken”, wherein Hagerty’s guitar work sounds simultaneously upbeat and thoughtful. Here, Lawrence’s gentle vibrato is almost Karen Carpenter-esque as she sings lines like, “Another Mr. Chicken walking the halls again.” As in all of Hagerty’s projects, his swaggering guitar never lets up and Neil’s acerbic vocal inflection helps hammer home his trademark style. The second decent moment is found during Knuckleball Express’ penultimate track, the mid-tempo duet, “Share a Name”. Again, it’s Nicole Lawrence’s involvement that makes the song special as she and Hagerty trade lines like a woozy rock and roll Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
Hardcore Hagerty fans will be happy with Knuckleball Express. Neil’s guitar work is consistently solid throughout and his voice sounds strong. Those looking for something more substantial and varied in terms of instrumentation and style from song to song may want to think twice before pulling the trigger on this one. Still, at under thirty minutes, Howling Hex’s latest may serve as a fair primer for newbs and casual fans of Hagerty’s work.