Last updated on November 20, 2020
James Dickey did not have Curtis Eller’s banjo in mind when he wrote his literary classic Deliverance, published in 1970. (In the 1972 film, the iconic use of “Dueling Banjos” might be more authentic with Bob Dylan irreverently looking over the scene playing the moonshiner-in-charge of the party, all before the adventure goes to hell.) Yet A Poison Melody from the oft-banjo-led Curtis Eller’s American Circus has much in common with Dickey’s dark observations of humanity. Eller sets an aura of disgust to his music, unravelling societal perceptions note by note.
Rich with eleven songs that meander through an amalgamation of roots Americana, Eller delivers his signature banjo, lead vocals, and resophonic tenor guitar serving as a solid foundation for Dana Marks’ and Stacy Wolfson’s harmony vocals. A cacophony of instrumentation comes alive from Hugh Crumley (electric & upright bass), Jack Fleishman (drums, percussion), Steve Cowles (tenor saxophone, flute), Danny Grewen (trombone), Danny Abrams (baritone saxophone, clarinet), William Dawson (vibraphone), and Tom Merrigan (piano). Yeah, this is an instrumentation circus of the best kind; the band adds lush, precise sounds with Eller as a deft guide.
When I asked Eller what music turns him on, it’s no surprise that he mentioned Randy Newman’s name. Eller and Newman share an acerbic eye on society, as tone-setting opener “Radiation Poison” shows. Strutting out with sarcastic wit, this track demands that listeners pay attention. However, the celebratory arrangement induces listeners to start toe tapping, too. With the song beautifully punctuated by baritone sax, trombone, and vocal harmonies, it’s hard to remember the lyrical context is not pleasant. Jazzing up the catastrophe seems to make global warming feel less hellish, right?
Stark, expansive imagery has the space to breathe like in works of Bob Dylan, another songwriter known to inspire Eller. Halfway through, “Pay the Band” starts into a laid-back, piano-focused track elevating a jazzy speakeasy to a mob club with a killer trombone solo. Fun and disturbing in that prohibition style, this is a masterclass showcase.
Often, a minimal touch is the best a songwriter can give to a great song to make it soar out of this world. The subtle title track bears it out: the track is perfect. Uncluttered imagery embraces simple instrumentation supported by restrained production choices. Dave Tilley recorded and engineered the record with stylistic restraint at Bogue Sound Studios & Studio M. Mixing by Joseph Dejarnette at Studio 808A and Mike Monseur’s subtle mastering leave a raw, authentic soul to each note of instrumentation.
Cuts that contrast these minimal takes–like the upbeat “Union Hall” (praising fanaticism as patriotism like marching orders) and “These Birds”–are sequencing genius for listeners who prefer an immersive experience in a musician’s art. “No Soap Radio” pulls in that speakeasy grind, and the track climbs to near-perfection; Eller, Wolfson, and Marks deliver clean, authentic vocal deliveries here.
“Lenny Bruce” stands out on an album loaded with social commentary with smart restraint. The subtle, smart imagery of this lyrical powerhouse does not need distractions. Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” is a dark, dank trip through hell that brings listeners back to a place where images of survival easily find footing in the soul. Raw and real, each trudge through Deliverance with flute and banjo accompaniment make the jungles of life endurable.
Wandering into the sunlight with a snarky, sardonic celebration, Curtis Eller’s bookends “Before the Riot” and “After the Riot” are lovely, enough said! Closing out A Poison Melody with “No Words to Choose” seems a fitting departure point. Achingly sweet, this simple homage to truth seems to be channeling the influences of artists like Newman. A haunting crescendo of closing distortion makes the anger feel tangible beyond the closing crashing chords and vocals clipped into silence of this latest American Circus chapter.–Lisa Whealy