album review: curtis eller’s american circus — how to make it in hollywood

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Curtis Eller immediately captivated me a few years ago when he moved back to the Triangle after a number of years in Brooklyn; his songs were a mix of the macabre and the historical, the morbid and the hilarious, and his stage presence was the sort that you couldn’t take your eyes from. How To Make It In Hollywood is his first effort since returning to the NC with a full band working with him, an ensemble rather than session musicians, and it shows in the roundness and completeness of the record. “Old Time Religion” starts off with a growl of bass and guitar before segueing into the close harmonies and biting social commentary that marks Eller’s songwriting.

It may be social commentary that’s firmly rooted in Depression-era vaudeville tradition, but the band that backs Eller — Louis Landry, Shea Broussard, and Dana Marks — gives the harmonies a modern feel, a mix of the new Americana, the vaudeville tradition, and the back-up singers of the girl groups of the ’50s and ’60s. It’s all over “1929” and the upbeat feel of that track, and the one that follows, “Butcherman”, a track that opens with strong picked banjo and a light sounding take on American slaughterhouses.

The sound of “Battlefield Amputation” — electric guitars and a heavy basslines — moves the sound of How To Make It In Hollywood strictly into the 21st century while the subject material stays back in times past, again emphasizing what I think makes Eller’s music so unique and startling. There are not many rock and roll songs about amputation, and I certainly wouldn’t expect to really enjoy one, but this one I do. The ability to engage the listener with sound and subject is a matter of talent and charm, which Eller and his band have in spade.

“Three More Minutes With Elvis” closes the first “side” of the album; it’s a plaintive song, primarily just Eller’s voice and banjo, and resonates firmly with the rest of the album as an ode to the past with its ties to the present and the future. Three more minutes with Elvis Presley, ain’t that the least you can do. “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” takes on another icon of the ’70s, in an organ-fueled dance number, and gives a dark take on that time period. “If You’re For A Loser” jumps back even further, to the Civil War, into another plaintive banjo-heavy tune, giving a voice to a Southern warrior. It’s part love song and part dirge, and entirely lovely.

“Moses In The Bulrushes” opens with a jumping bean drum beat, and continues with Eller’s stylized voice — as much in the style of a tent revival song as opener “Old Time Religion”. And “Busby Berkeley Funeral” takes on the title of the record directly: i left instructions for my funeral with a camera crew / take me down to MGM, they’ll know what to do; it’s a name-dropping clever ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and it’s a great penultimate song for an album that’s rooted firmly in respect for the past.

swing down, Hollywood, and save my soul, sings Eller, and this album does it: the clever balance of new sounds and reverence for the past ends with, again, a more simple track in “Thunder & Beehives”. The song wraps up a journey through the United States and its history, and marks, to me, clearly that Eller is making the most interesting historical banjo tunes today. They may not sound traditional, but they are rooted in tradition. no one owns these, they are last year’s seeds, the album closes, and it closes perfectly.

Eller and his American Circus release How To Make It In Hollywood on Friday, 1/31, at Motorco Music Hall in Durham, with New Town Drunks. Be there. Buy this album.

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