Charismatic banjo player and bandleader Curtis Eller is yet another first-class songwriter who got brain-drained out of New York by the the real estate speculators’ blitzkrieg. But he’s never stopped writing dark, witheringly insightful, brutally funny folk noir songs. His latest album A Poison Melody – streaming at his music page – is his hardest-rocking record yet, and it’s as grimly relevant as ever.
The title track, Radiation Poison sets the stage. Don’t let the bluster of those of jump blues-inspired horns fool you: this is about an invisible killer. Eller’s references may be Nagasaki and the New Mexico atom bomb tests, but in the post-Fukushima era, the song has even more relevance. “Everybody’s been exposed,” Eller warns.
Eller introduces the dirty-water garage rock stomp of No Soap Radio as “A no-bullshit story about what happened in ’63 – how come it’s always Texas when there’s a murder on tv?” William Dawson’s vibraphone lingers in the background with the torchy harmony vocals of Dana Marks and Stacy Wolfson on the album’s title cut, a doomed soul ballad.
Jack Fleishman’s loose-limbed drums propel Union Hall, a New Orleans-spiced romp alluding to the 1968 Detroit riots, but with current-day irony:
I’m gonna call the police on my neighbor
I’m gonna take my pistol downtown
The Constitution said I can shoot what I want
Everybody get down
Nobody is surprised by the die-off in These Birds, a stark eco-disaster parable. Pay the Band, a big audience favorite at shows, has gospel piano from Tom Merrigan. As Eller sees it, money is like “morphine on the front line.” And, “You gotta pay the band if you wanna watch those losers dance.” It gets even better from there: the punchlines are too good to give away.
The gospel atmosphere is more subdued and elegaic in Lenny Bruce. Cowles plays flute over Eller’s spare, steady, ominous banjo in Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, a caustically aphoristic World War II basic training parable in period-perfect blues vernacular.
After that, Eller does a diptych about a riot; the sly introduction signals the twisted jubilation of the second, a cynical reminder how calamities are always heaven for profiteers. He winds up the album with the sobering No Word to Choose, Hugh Crumley’s steady bass holding the center amid subtly tricky syncopation, up to a final conflagration. In the post-3/11, post-9/11 era, we need clear-eyed guys like Eller more than ever.