Curtis Eller’s American Circus - “A Poison Melody”

Durham, North Carolina banjo player and songwriter Curtis Eller has been crafting a recognizable brand of ramshackle punk americana for a number of years, blending edgy rock and roll vocals with vintage subject matter and instrumentation to create an alternate reality populated by steampunk versions of actual history. After being involved with a lot of other terribly creative endeavors, Curtis returns to his ‘American Circus’ for the first time since 2014’s How to Make it in Hollywood.

Unlike Hollywood..., which was a stripped-down affair that harkened to single-mic recording days, A Poison Melody is an ambitious recording project, elevating Curtis Eller’s distintive style to new heights. The production on A Poison Melody is top notch, and introduces a wider array of sounds, including a robust helping of horn arrangements. The result is a slick presentation of sleazy, pool hall ragtime music with enough anacronistic folk trappings to bedazzle any passer by with its burlesque thrust.

The record kicks off with Radiation Poison, which is likely to be the most energetic, jiving session of music you’ve ever heard about the sobering subject matter. Curtis Eller’s lyrics are macabre to a nearly Tim Burton level sometimes, glibly pointing out the ills of our society with a decidedly droll manner, tounge firmly in cheek. This opening track also showcases the general feel of the album, careening shabby jazz played in a dilapidated dance hall filled with shady characters. Eller himself is the strongest anachronism here, a punk rocker transported back to depression era music ala “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” spraying his coarse vocal delivery all over this ramshackle affair.

The action that builds in fiery rocker Union Hall, slows to a ballad with minimally composed track, These Birds – it’s a sparse and poignant moment of songwriting that serves as a callback to earlier Curtis Eller works while adding another layer of detail to A Poison Melody. Another standout track Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, is a bluesy folk spectacle infused with jazzy flute solos and tent revival energy.

Overall, A Poison Melody is just what it promises to be, a rollicking folk record with a curious mix of vintage stye, wry humor, and an undercurrent of social consciousness presented in all its lurid, swanky glory. This is certainly one time you’ll want to run away with the circus. Curtis Eller’s American Circus, that is.

A Poison Melody is available on compact disc and vinyl directly form the artist.

Gray Lee