This year’s most memorable and individualistic Halloween artifact is Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish. It’s an ep by charismatic noir Americana songwriter/banjoist Curtis Eller in collaboration with Chapel Hill folk noir/circus rock band the New Town Drunks. And it’s a whole lot more than just a playlist or a cd. It’s a digital release – streaming at Bandcamp – that comes with a handcrafted volvelle that allows you to follow along with the songs’ grim imagery through a window above the wheel of Jamie B. Wolcott‘s colorful, matching illustrations underneath. Such “spinnies,” as they were called in the 19th century, are cousins of the flipbook and predecessors of the crankie. The text of the four tracks comprises imaginative English translations of four poems from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. The songs were written for performances of the “serialized recasting” of Les Fleurs Du Mal by Chicago’s Theater Oobleck.
Eller sings the first cut, The Joyful Dead (Le Mort Joyeux: for purposes of consistency between languages, we’re gonna stick with title case here, ok?). An alternate translation could be “The Contented Corpse.” Louis Landry’s macabrely twinkling glockenspiel fuels the simmering intro before the track gets going with a haphazardly jaunty bounce.
Eller also contributes The Albatross (L’Albatros), done as one of his signature noir blues numbers over a subtle backdrop of accordion and funeral organ textures behind his animated vocals and stark banjo. The translation is vivid: Eller goes the big picture rather than word-for-word, and he doesn’t bother with a rhyme scheme. The mashup of the final stanza is artful to the extreme, driving home Baudelaire’s equation of the tormented poet to the tortured bird amid the drunken sailors, crippled beneath the weight of its vast wings.
The New Town Drunks’ first track is Always the Same (Semper Eadem), a menacing tango sung with unselfconscious angst by Diane Koistinen over a pouncing beat, Doug Norton’s ominously chromatic Balkan accordion swirling through the mix. This particular translation, voicing Baudelaire’s proto-existentialist anguish over distractions from the inevitable, is a challenging one and takes some poetic license. The band’s other song is Le Vampire. Interestingly, they set Baudelaire’s savage kiss-off of a lyric to upbeat after-the-rain jazz-pop livened with Robo Jones’ trombone. As short albums go, there’s been nothing released this year that compares with this, unfair as that comparison is, considering the source of the lyrics. And the package is an Antiques Road Show type of piece, a limited edition bound to appreciate in value as the years go by.