Album review: Curtis Eller’s American Circus
Is it possible to have nostalgia for a time and place you do not know? Is it weird that when you see a sepia photograph of a strongman posing in front of a big top or a tattooist inking a muscular shoulder in a Coney Island shack or a Victorian conjurer holding a caged bird at arm’s length or a card shark in the dusty corner of a saloon staring at his hand, that you want a piece of this in your life?
Somewhere beyond reach, back in time, a place exists where innocence finds itself twisted out of shape by mystery and mayhem and characters too big for now, too big for then. New York yodelling banjo player Curtis Eller inhabits this world and refuses to let it die. He is the man to tell the stories behind the photos, show you the places you wish to be.
Eller’s latest album How to Make It In Hollywood is his biggest and boldest to date and marks a step forward in terms of production. The satire, the humour, the nostalgia are all still evident but the sound is fuller. The up-tempo tracks rollick along with genuine blues swagger, bolstered with some fine organ playing and Eller’s own banjo that sounds brilliantly filthy, grumbling discontentedly like Tom Wait’s Mark Ribot guitar. This gives Old Time Religion, Butcherman, The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon the grit, stubble, spit and sawdust they deserve. Old Time Religion is a fantastic opener, a wild secular gospel stomp set off with Eller’s sharp imagery: “There’s a black spot in the honey and these insects don’t breed.”
The slow-plucked sentimental banjo ballads are here too, tender and full of yearning. On album closer Thunder and Beehive, Eller sings: “I hear voices in these old dead transistors” – the past speaks to Eller, moves him and his ambition is to make us hear it too. A key metaphor on Hollywood is that of ‘last year’s seeds’ – when Eller intones: “Nobody owns this, these are last year’s seeds,” he could well be referring to the stories and characters from the forgotten histories that he claims ownership of, plucking them from a bygone age more appealing than today’s.
There is a familiar sense of carnival and theatricality on Hollywood as Eller reimagines tales and events, mythologises historical figures and breathes life into stained newspaper clippings, turning the past on its head. The imagery is suitably evocative on How to Make It In Hollywood: monkeys drink wine, infants sleep with shotguns, champagne is sipped by swimming pools and butchers are bathed in blood. The characterisation too is impressive as we are introduced to versions of Sonny Liston, Busby Berkeley, and Robert E Lee.
It is on Three More Minutes with Elvis that we learn the most about Eller. The song fits in with several others from Eller’s back catalogue that are tributes to important figures, each representing something of the innocence and possibility of their age. In particular it recalls paeans he has recorded to Amelia Earhart and Last Flight of the Pigeon Club. But this time, it is Elvis who is the focus, a man painted as the saviour of music and the only one capable of delivering a “song that rings true.” As much as Eller and his band try, last year’s seeds don’t always grow and the characters that lit up history don’t ever truly return.
On occasion Eller goes too far on How to Make It In Hollywood; he has a tendency to be over-sentimental, some of the period touches are a little heavy-handed and the pub-rock of Battlefield Amputation falls short musically. But ultimately, it is a thoroughly enjoyable album of Americana that somehow manages to fix its gaze on the past while squinting disapprovingly at the present.
‘How to Make It in Hollywood’ is available via Eller’s website.
Review by Tom Spooner.