Durham, N.C. has been good to Curtis Eller. Ever since the reigning banjo king of the East Coast’s “Antique-Garde” relocated to North Carolina from New York City a few years ago, his fan base has grown more fanatical at shows and on Facebook, and his sound has ripened like delicious fruit or aged like sweet bourbon, whichever analogy you prefer. And now we have How To Make It In Hollywood, his American Circus’ first release since Eller and family (wife Jamie B. Wolcott again provided the cover art) moved south of the Mason-Dixon. And, let me tell you, it is good, brother. Eller and company – he’s joined here by multi-instrumentalist Louis Landry and vocalists Shea D. Broussard and Dana Marks, as well as a revolving lineup of upright and electric bassists – stomp and romp through the record’s 10 tracks as if the building’s on the fire and there’s only one take to go before the studio’s nothing but ashes and regret. It’s not desperation. It’s desire, driven by circumstance. For those new to Eller, the music, like his “Antique-Garde” cohorts in bands such as Kill Henry Sugar and Pinataland, isn’t Old Timey so much as it’s modern and nostalgic for – lower case – old times. Yes, you’ll be slapping your knee along to a plucked banjo and songs calling out Hollywood Golden Age choreographer Busby Berkeley (“Busby Berkeley Funeral” is a personal and joyously morose selection, for sure) but you also are listening to a musician who invokes Sacco & Vanzetti in one breath and Elvis in the next. This isn’t the authentic Delta blues. It’s all part of the choreography or the act, so it seems, and the act is very much set in the Year of Our Lord 2014. But what an act it is. Eller is on fire – no reference to that earlier literary device intended – for the record’s first four tracks, which kick off with the righteous and riotous “Old Time Religion” and whallop down with the electrified “Battlefield Amputation,” which shows Eller’s version of Honky Tonk is decidedly contemporary. (Eller has never shown as much vitriol and familiarity with the capital-R Rock songbook as he does here.) Side two gems include the aforementioned “Berkeley” number, a real shout-out to anyone who’s ever imagined mourners at their own funeral, “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” – with its grungy stomp and Rolling Stones vocal homage – and the tender, closing “Thunder & Beehives.” Throughout, whether it’s the pumping Hammond organ echoing in a chorus or the razor-sharp recording of Eller’s banjo refrains, the music is lively in a way the phrase “lit up,” with some (I suppose) of its connotations, suggests. Those who know the Eller canon likely will buy the record regardless of its merits – or contributed to its Kickstarter campaign to get it produced in the first place – but it’s worth saying that this record fits in the pantheon right alongside Taking Up Serpents Again, his full-length debut, or Wirewalkers & Assassins, that debut’s follow-up. The records have evolved, yes, with Eller’s songs somehow getting richer while not losing the tinny, Lone Man sole-banjo spirit that imbues each of them. On How To Make It In Hollywood, Eller, the old musical ‘49er, strikes the pay-dirt that courses through American memory again, and creates a real rollicking spectacle for those looking for an engaging way to pass the time.
JUSTIN VELLUCCI - POPDOSE MAGZINE
Another Savagely Funny, Menacing Album from Curtis Eller
As New York rents rise, the brain drain continues. Case in point: charismatic songwriter and banjo player Curtis Eller, who electrified audiences here from the mid-zeros through the early teens with his historically rich, phantasmagorical songs before leaving the city. Happily, he hasn’t given up on music. Eller’s back catalog is a savagely lyrical, surreal chronicle of some of the darker, more obscure moments in American history. Cruel ironies, double entendres and surprisingly subtle humor are everywhere in his songs, the music informed by oldtime swing and blues but not beholden to those traditions, sometimes menacing and morbid, sometimes gentle, sometimes furiously punked-out. Among songwriters, LJ Murphy is a good comparison – vintage vernacular, spot-on commentary on the here and now.
Eller’s also got a fantastic new album, How to Make It in Hollywood, which finds him taking a full-throttle detour into dark garage rock and classic soul music along with the oldtime sounds that made him one of New York’s most riveting live acts. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page. The opening track, Old Time Religion, is Eller at his brilliant best. Ostensibly it’s an oldtime gospel song but as it keeps going, it turns out that it’s a parody, complete with call-and-response vocals and organ. “Giving up my last chance, backsliding out the church dance, I’m gonna split the congregation, I’ve got the clap around me, dirty hands and that old time religion,” he drawls righteously.
1929 is sarcastic and anachronistic, early Chuck Berry taken back in time 25 years: this guy had a bad 1928 but he just can’t wait to see how good it’s going to be with Mr. Hoover in office! Eller works similar, bizarrrely pointed historical references into the oldschool soul ballad If You’re Looking for a Loser – which connects the dots between Robert E. Lee and Sonny Liston – and the considerably sadder, slower, more gospel-fueled Three More Minutes with Elvis as well as the wryly grim Busby Berkeley Funeral. And the final track, just solo vocals and banjo, is a very clever slap upside the head of the agribusiness cartel from a plainspoken guy down on the farm.
But the best songs here are the darkest and angriest. Butcherman begins witha bit of a calypso lilt and then becomes a soul shuffle. “I don’t want that filthy Chicago meat, take me down to Delancey and Essex Street,” Eller shouts out to his old Lower East Side stomping grounds: everybody else can have the preacher, but this guy knows that the butcher’s the one who really has his hands on the afterlife. Moses in the Bulrushes reverts to the hellfire apocalypticism throughout much of Eller’s music:
There’s a black crow circling over the North Pole
They got the satellite hooked up to the signal where it just don’t take
And this graveyard don’t have room for my skeleton, not tonight
Where there’s stormclouds going in but they just don’t break
The album’s best song is the eerily pulsing shuffle The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon, with a riverbed grave, Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long as a backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. There’s also Battlefield Amputation, the album’s loudest song, which sounds like Elvis Costello circa This Year’s Model, right down to the vocals and the torrents of indignant imagery. Along wth Eller on all the stringed instruments, Louis Landry plays drums and catchy, eclectic, often menacing organ, with Shea Broussard on bass, joining with Dana Marks to add soaring, often sardonic harmony vocals. It may be something of a crapshoot and an impossible task to say that one great album rates over the other great ones in a given year, but this one’s as good a candidate as any for number one with a bullet for 2014.
Around three years ago I was trawling through the Internet in search of new music and I remember seeing a video of a tall, moustachioed man armed with a banjo and fire in his voice, this man was Curtis Eller. Being a huge fan of Curtis’ previous work I had high expectations for ‘How To Make It In Hollywood’ and let me tell you, it surpassed them all. The opening track ‘Old Time Religion‘ is set to life with some choppy electric guitar, classic Hammond organ and soulful backing vocals. All these ingredients parcel up to set the pace for the rest of this satisfyingly raw, rock and roll record. The album carries an up tempo honky-tonk feel for it’s majority, giving you plenty to immerse your ears and shake your hips to. Curtis doesn’t hold back vocally either, his vocal acrobatics can take you from tenderness to a wolf howl in a few bars. Mr Eller’s eccentricities are certainly celebrated in this album; with his charismatic personality oozing through his trade mark Yodelling! The album has it’s more tender moments too, on Three More Minutes with Elvis, a woeful ballad with Curtis showing he can still capture your imagination with a simple song about loss and longing. This whole album is rich in great storytelling; each song is brimming with Eller’s twists on American history and turn of phrase. Curtis will be heading over here to the UK and we at One For The Road are very excited to hear how these new songs will sound live. The year may only be in its infancy but I am going to go out on a limb say that I may of already found my album of the year, I urge you all to get yourself a copy of ‘How To Make It And Hollywood’. I promise you won’t regret it.
Hard though it is, I try not to get hung up on genre, but by the end of this review I’m going to have to invent a new one and issue patent on behalf of Curtis Eller and his American Circus, because I can (almost) guarantee you won’t have heard anything like this before. What you have here is quality artistry with loose-limbed, plug-in and play theatrical improvisation that name checks a Sgt. Pepper’s menagerie of 19th and 20th century American celebrities and politicians on its way to completely bowling you over. I’d need another review to list out the names you’ll hear, but there’s no danger of the album becoming land-locked in 2014 as most of them are dead and gone.
Eller doesn’t give much away about himself. Purposefully enigmatic, he once told American Songwriter ‘I consider myself primarily a rock and roll singer. I just happen to play the five-string banjo’, thus extending the enigma a little more. His website has a list of present band members and past alumni, then requests anyone who wants to join to send him an email. Eccentric? No. Different? Certainly. It suits the music well not to know too much about him, so I suggest you do your own research if you want to know more – the important thing here is what happens when the laser washes across the ones and zeroes.
There are stabs of Hammond in several tracks, raw yet controlled fuzz guitar, back-porch harmonising, brutal tom tom work and staccato banjo picking. The album lurches from energetic arm-flailing contemporary ‘rawk’ to early 60s British Invasion pop to Boardwalk music hall to quasi-jazz and big-without-the-numbers big band. Normally I’d be wincing just reading this, but Eller and his crack Circus walk the tightrope of diversity without a pole and plenty enough chutzpah to pull off a somersault at the end. It’s drama all the way, yet never crosses the line into crisis.
If I said the opener Old Time Religion sounds like a cross between Van Halen’s Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now) and a track that remained on the editing suite floor during the Stones’ Let It Bleed sessions, with a sprinkling of Doors organ, you might begin to see my dilemma. It swings like a scythe in a hurricane. 1929 steps lightly across prohibition-littered America, not so much legislating for morality than requesting you ignore the stuffed shirts and Wall Street suicides and dance. Battlefield Amputation might have been The Cure circa Electric, all short sharp stabs of guitar riff and Booker T keys. Three More Minutes With Elvis is a gospel ballad underpinned with picked banjo notes and upright piano. The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon (cute) pays homage to the Stones again in its backing vocals, the song a swampy trawl through Southern-fried rock n’ roll laced with humour and vitriol aplenty.
Eller’s voice is elastic and just the right side of off-kilter to compliment the rough edges behind it; he lives and breathes the words on each song and you hear every intake of air and burnished rasp, even down to some particularly strangled yodelling on the punchy double-bass driven Moses In The Bulrushes. I can imagine the comedy morbidity of Busby Berkeley Funeral two-thirds of the way through Bugsy, men in pin-stripes and spats twirling spud-guns and harmonising on Eller’s wishes for a Hollywood style burial.
In just under 40 minutes Eller and the Circus take your business class ticket to Glastonbury, rip it up, and replace it with steerage seats to voodoo-nights in New Orleans’ French Quarter. It’s a trip you should take.
Vaudeville Blues. Patent in the post, Curtis.
PAUL WOODGATE - FOLK RADIO UK