The album starts with a blues riff played on a banjo and includes a wild man yelling “I’m free at last!” It has eleven songs with (mostly) unhappy endings and holds out just enough underdog enthusiasm to keep us emotionally afloat for the worse times that probably ahead.
It’s Curtis Eller’s best album yet, a fine place to start if (for reasons I don’t really understand) you haven’t heard of him until now.
By good fortune I saw his show in the city of Leeds 15 years ago and his singular genius has stuck with me ever since. He is a prolific singer-songwriter with a rueful interest in bygone American hardships, heroes, anti-heroes and legends. His songs seem like real folk music. They tell sad stories with strong tunes and immediate contemporary relevance. He presents them live with circus acrobatics and a long faced emotional sadness.
Curtis is also a serious artist who pushes his creativity onwards. Most recently it was as musical director of contemporary dance ensemble The Bipeds. The videos are gripping, and the album is highly recommended. Keep your fingers crossed and write letters to P.T. Barnum for a world tour of this material.
This new album is the finest thing he has done so far. It’s a series of illustrated warnings against the madness we can see right now, on both sides of the North Atlantic and either side of the equator. The lethal actors are re-presented in these songs through the follies of the past. Dark humour is gnarled up with bass, electric guitar and saxophone, so the music is heavy enough to carry the weight. Harmony voices ease the pain.
Poison is right there in the album’s title and its menace runs through the songs. It was, in Nagasaki, an integral part of new hope in the Western World on August 9th 1945. So “Radiation Poison” at track one shouts “Hallelujah Nagasaki!” and the story of a nuclear accident in New Mexico laments the consequences for Navajo Nation people downstream from a failure in the peacetime adoption.
Poison also shows its romantic potential in the title track “Poison Melody”. It’s that damnable tune that never fails to prick the tear duct of first love. Here, it’s a waltz-time lament with pretty harmony singing and glockenspiel, with a trombone to soften the banjo’s plangency. Lovely.
As the album unfolds, each song brings another mood, another reflection. “No Soap Radio” is a glorious bit of nonsense about nonsense (perhaps aimed at our mass media’s failure to understand the depth of The Donalds’ (Duck and Trump) squawking.
“Pay The Band” gently speaks up for all those contemporary musicians who have ever asked for or turned up to a gig to find that there are still dreamers who think that nurturing music needs no more than applause. Historically, it celebrates the joy of the fifth of December 1933 when Prohibition was rescinded. (“Watch those losers dance!”)
“Union Hall” is an angry little cracker, wielding banjo and upright bass in a pretty fearsome assault on the gun zealots of the NRA (not mentioned by name) and the President (“I love USA!”)
“Lenny Bruce” is a simple, true, personal lament. It fits surprisingly well in amongst some of the otherwise acerbic critiques. A harmony voice and a languorous sax solo take it to another place altogether.
“Waist Deep In the Big Muddy” (written by Pete Seeger in 1967) has a flute solo that fits (against all odds) into what could be listened to as a simple protest song. It is, however, a well-told story that applies to a million mindless leaders who press on with futile plans. As such it deserves this excellent re-cycling to my grandchildren and their parents.
On the approach to the album’s gentle closing waltz we have a pair of tracks that poke sharp sticks into our most baffling contemporary calamities.
We have “Before the Riot” and “After the Riot” with lines that which sent deep shudders through this ancient listener:
"Jesus Christ is a white man! I’m free at last!"
“A bell I can ring with my heart, I’m free at last!”
Closing track “No Words To Choose” is a gem. The small band accompaniment is a perfect setting. “My old broken home” he sings, mournful and true with those harmony voices and the saxophone gently carrying him back to where it all might have gone wrong. The album ends with a cathartic wail of grief. Perhaps that’s what we all need right now.
The meanings and feelings in all this great music demand close attention - preferably in a live music venue with Mr Curtis Eller standing on a tall chair while high-kicking a bit of plaster from the ceiling. That’s going to be the best time to buy the CD as well.
Check out A Poison Melody by Curtis Eller