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.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
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