Review: Curtis Eller’s American Circus – “A Poison Melody”

I’m fairly convinced at this point that, if the singer/songwriter Curtis Eller wanted to walk on water, he’d find a way to do it and do it well. His new LP — A Poison Melody, self-released on vinyl, CD and digital formats May 31 — is making its way now to the mailboxes of its many Kickstarter backers (Full disclosure: I am one of them) and it is, hands down, Eller and the American Circus at their goddamn finest, one-upping even its predecessor, the mind-boggling-ly good How To Make It In Hollywood.

Part of the success is a matter of structure. I was introduced to Eller, a Detroit descendant (Detroit gets at least one spirited shout-out on the new LP) living in NYC, in the early 2000s when his records were largely solo affairs. It’s not that they were bare bones or sketches; Eller always has played his heart out — and then some. The “band” on those precious early recordings frequently fleshed out Eller’s banjo-and-acrobatics ruminations on the cluttered intersection of past and present with upright bass, percussion, and the like. But, since moving back to North Carolina, Eller’s band has stabilized around a core group and the performances, nay even the spines and details the songs offer, are clearly the work of a collective. Listen to the backing vocals or the horns or the clarinet or the xylophone (wait, is that xylophone?!) and you’ll know what I mean.

That said, the new record also features more than its handful of incredible songs. “After The Riot” and “Union Hall,” with its thumping upright bass and roiling drums, stand up there with some of Eller’s best work. (I’m partial to “Sugar In My Coffin,” “Taking Up Serpents Again,” “Save Me, Joe Louis” and “Battlefield Amputation, ” for what it’s worth) And the sections of “Union Hall,” alongside jingoistic shouts of “I love/the U.S.A.” and blaring, NOLA horns, might make some feel like they’re in Preservation Hall. Then, there’s the boozy, Joplin-on-benzos piano of “Pay The Band,” the emotive close to “No Words to Choose,” and I cannot say enough great things about the Circus’ engaging cover of folk icon Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy.” (Those who follow Eller’s brand of off-handed political commentary on Facebook will appreciate the timeliness of the Seeger tune in Trump’s America, given our pending flirtation with war in Iran.)

Eller spins a hell of a yarn on songs like opener “Radiation Poison,” and, though Elvis and Lincoln make fewer appearances than they have in the past, Eller is still painting sound-portraits of a mixed-up world where the old and the new intermingle like so many drunks at a funeral, right before the mess of it all pours right into the streets. Your mission here is clear, dear reader: join the rumpus. – Justin Vellucci, MusicTAP, May 30, 2019

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