This here is a fourth, long-awaited, and very welcome album from CURTIS ELLER's AMERICAN CIRCUS. The Wirewalkers are the cultural heroes, working with honour and no safety net, for the wonderment of us all. The Assassins are the nemeses to those who would use, and destroy the heroes. Both archetypes weave and swing their ways through the songs.
Spotting their historical (or personal) counterparts will be a pleasure for months ahead. Fidel Castro, Joe, Lewis, Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald, Richard Nixon and all the rest. But for our entertainment today, we have, Ladies and Gentlemen, a glittering cast.
Ms Liisa Yonker and her soulful sisters in song Ms Marilee Eitner (doubling accordion) and Ms Rima Fand (who offers a fine violin to duet with the banjo); the ever-upright Joseph DeJarnette on double bass; the D.J. Fontana of the Circus - the rhythmical Mr Chris Moore; the multi-talented Gary Langol on upright bass, lap steel, organ and mandolin; old friend Gerald Menke on pedal steel, Amy Kohn on extra accordion; and our own, our very own, (and New York City's adopted) Mr Curtis Eller on banjo, voices and heart-rending songology. Handbills, posters and tickets have been painted for the occasion by the talented Ms Jamie Walcott, in the frontier style to which we have become accustomed.
CURTIS ELLER is a solo performer for the most part, with a theatrical presentation and a talent for deep Americana of a pre-talkies Vaudeville kind. On this album he plays banjo in a percussive and gymnastic way, sprinkling it like Tabasco over the well measured arrangements of eleven original songs. The shapes and themes are familiar to us American Circus die-hards. The instrumentation and arrangements and the sound production have all developed and got richer since the earlier work. Continuity of studio, producer and key personnel has done nothing but good. New listeners would be wise to start right here.
In hearing a song that rails "Where is John Wilkes Booth when you need him?", sounding like it could have been recorded by Sam Phillips in 1956, with Marilee Eitner playing the prettiest accordion middle eight you've ever heard, you might be inclined to smile and file it under "Charmng". But ponder the deep pleasure of the harmony singing and reflect on a long tradition of grotesques in all our cultures, painted and dressed in affectionately angry mockery of the living.
"The Circus lives in our dreams", sings Eller, as "Hartford Circus Fire 1944" winds to its mournful end. An old world has been burnt to the ground through neglect and abuse. "The angels' voices don't carry, the choirs disband and drift apart". And we don't sleep well. The song doesn't need to name villains - we all have our own P.T. Barnum, but the deeds have been done and those glories are lost. When the whole shooting match is named "America Circus", I think it's fair to interpret Eller's laments for the burnt out circus as connected in some serious way with 3rd Millennium USA.
The same might be ventured of his interest in factories, coal mines, warfare and other historic sites of toil and untimely death."Sweatshop Fire" (WOODY GUTHRIE's autobiography is full of people set afire - it's a very American way) is not so arcane and historical is it? Whether it's our souls destroyed in office cubicles, or our comrades destroyed in third world diamond mines, we need songs that point the finger at the drunken maniacs in suits who set the whole thing burning (like Ulysses S. Grant). As in earlier songs about drunks with power, Eller captures the self delusion of alcoholism with scary accuracy.
The brightest (but by no means the only) beam of pure optimistic light on the album is "Daisy Josephine", a celebration of the birth of a next-generation Eller. New York might be knocking down its own heritage, and throwing sculpted angels into the New Jersey swamp, but a beautiful new life in the City's heart brings hope and pleasure to fill the void. In his redoubtable imagination, Curtis has the stone angels re-emerging to welcome the baby.
I've mentioned the bursts of quality harmony singing, and the very pert squeeze box. Other delights include lap steel guitar on the very alt-country "Plea Of The Aerialists Wife". "whose lines and stature have more than a shade of "Stand By Your Man" about them. The accordion touches this song, too , but gently. The careful rationing of the instrumentation in itself is a strength, keeping everything fresh and unexpected at each entry.
The predominant banjo has a choreographic quality to it, as if dancing around Eller's central character, commenting with twirls, twitches and bursts of notes like a tragi-comic Pierrot, hesitant and aggressive by turns. It's combination with a range of other instruments creates a series of textures that suggest something archaic, but which are novel and unusually expressive.
The last words must go to the closing masterpiece of a song "Save Me Joe Lewis", with organ mandolin and strung-out chorus. It tells of a man executed in a gas chamber in a southern state during the 1930s.
"Save me Joe Lewis, save me. / The last words that I'll ever say. / Save me Joe Lewis save me / and let the gas chamber take me away."
We have the whole Circus, most of New York, half the USA and me too, joining in as these lines swell to the final note. The enigmatically defiant last words had been put into an anonymous black convict's mouth in the writings of Martin Luther King.
A UK tour is imminent. The live show has been sampled and recommended on previous visits.