Another Savagely Funny, Menacing Album from Curtis Eller
As New York rents rise, the brain drain continues. Case in point: charismatic songwriter and banjo player Curtis Eller, who electrified audiences here from the mid-zeros through the early teens with his historically rich, phantasmagorical songs before leaving the city. Happily, he hasn’t given up on music. Eller’s back catalog is a savagely lyrical, surreal chronicle of some of the darker, more obscure moments in American history. Cruel ironies, double entendres and surprisingly subtle humor are everywhere in his songs, the music informed by oldtime swing and blues but not beholden to those traditions, sometimes menacing and morbid, sometimes gentle, sometimes furiously punked-out. Among songwriters, LJ Murphy is a good comparison – vintage vernacular, spot-on commentary on the here and now.
Eller’s also got a fantastic new album, How to Make It in Hollywood, which finds him taking a full-throttle detour into dark garage rock and classic soul music along with the oldtime sounds that made him one of New York’s most riveting live acts. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page. The opening track, Old Time Religion, is Eller at his brilliant best. Ostensibly it’s an oldtime gospel song but as it keeps going, it turns out that it’s a parody, complete with call-and-response vocals and organ. “Giving up my last chance, backsliding out the church dance, I’m gonna split the congregation, I’ve got the clap around me, dirty hands and that old time religion,” he drawls righteously.
1929 is sarcastic and anachronistic, early Chuck Berry taken back in time 25 years: this guy had a bad 1928 but he just can’t wait to see how good it’s going to be with Mr. Hoover in office! Eller works similar, bizarrrely pointed historical references into the oldschool soul ballad If You’re Looking for a Loser – which connects the dots between Robert E. Lee and Sonny Liston – and the considerably sadder, slower, more gospel-fueled Three More Minutes with Elvis as well as the wryly grim Busby Berkeley Funeral. And the final track, just solo vocals and banjo, is a very clever slap upside the head of the agribusiness cartel from a plainspoken guy down on the farm.
But the best songs here are the darkest and angriest. Butcherman begins witha bit of a calypso lilt and then becomes a soul shuffle. “I don’t want that filthy Chicago meat, take me down to Delancey and Essex Street,” Eller shouts out to his old Lower East Side stomping grounds: everybody else can have the preacher, but this guy knows that the butcher’s the one who really has his hands on the afterlife. Moses in the Bulrushes reverts to the hellfire apocalypticism throughout much of Eller’s music:
There’s a black crow circling over the North Pole
They got the satellite hooked up to the signal where it just don’t take
And this graveyard don’t have room for my skeleton, not tonight
Where there’s stormclouds going in but they just don’t break
The album’s best song is the eerily pulsing shuffle The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon, with a riverbed grave, Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long as a backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. There’s also Battlefield Amputation, the album’s loudest song, which sounds like Elvis Costello circa This Year’s Model, right down to the vocals and the torrents of indignant imagery. Along wth Eller on all the stringed instruments, Louis Landry plays drums and catchy, eclectic, often menacing organ, with Shea Broussard on bass, joining with Dana Marks to add soaring, often sardonic harmony vocals. It may be something of a crapshoot and an impossible task to say that one great album rates over the other great ones in a given year, but this one’s as good a candidate as any for number one with a bullet for 2014.