Durham, N.C. has been good to Curtis Eller.
Ever since the reigning banjo king of the East Coast’s “Antique-Garde” relocated to North Carolina from New York City a few years ago, his fan base has grown more fanatical at shows and on Facebook, and his sound has ripened like delicious fruit or aged like sweet bourbon, whichever analogy you prefer.
And now we have How To Make It In Hollywood, his American Circus’ first release since Eller and family (wife Jamie B. Wolcott again provided the cover art) moved south of the Mason-Dixon. And, let me tell you, it is good, brother.
Eller and company – he’s joined here by multi-instrumentalist Louis Landry and vocalists Shea D. Broussard and Dana Marks, as well as a revolving lineup of upright and electric bassists – stomp and romp through the record’s 10 tracks as if the building’s on the fire and there’s only one take to go before the studio’s nothing but ashes and regret. It’s not desperation. It’s desire, driven by circumstance.
For those new to Eller, the music, like his “Antique-Garde” cohorts in bands such as Kill Henry Sugar and Pinataland, isn’t Old Timey so much as it’s modern and nostalgic for – lower case – old times. Yes, you’ll be slapping your knee along to a plucked banjo and songs calling out Hollywood Golden Age choreographer Busby Berkeley (“Busby Berkeley Funeral” is a personal and joyously morose selection, for sure) but you also are listening to a musician who invokes Sacco & Vanzetti in one breath and Elvis in the next. This isn’t the authentic Delta blues. It’s all part of the choreography or the act, so it seems, and the act is very much set in the Year of Our Lord 2014.
But what an act it is. Eller is on fire – no reference to that earlier literary device intended – for the record’s first four tracks, which kick off with the righteous and riotous “Old Time Religion” and whallop down with the electrified “Battlefield Amputation,” which shows Eller’s version of Honky Tonk is decidedly contemporary. (Eller has never shown as much vitriol and familiarity with the capital-R Rock songbook as he does here.) Side two gems include the aforementioned “Berkeley” number, a real shout-out to anyone who’s ever imagined mourners at their own funeral, “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” – with its grungy stomp and Rolling Stones vocal homage – and the tender, closing “Thunder & Beehives.” Throughout, whether it’s the pumping Hammond organ echoing in a chorus or the razor-sharp recording of Eller’s banjo refrains, the music is lively in a way the phrase “lit up,” with some (I suppose) of its connotations, suggests.
Those who know the Eller canon likely will buy the record regardless of its merits – or contributed to its Kickstarter campaign to get it produced in the first place – but it’s worth saying that this record fits in the pantheon right alongside Taking Up Serpents Again, his full-length debut, or Wirewalkers & Assassins, that debut’s follow-up. The records have evolved, yes, with Eller’s songs somehow getting richer while not losing the tinny, Lone Man sole-banjo spirit that imbues each of them. On How To Make It In Hollywood, Eller, the old musical ‘49er, strikes the pay-dirt that courses through American memory again, and creates a real rollicking spectacle for those looking for an engaging way to pass the time.