Curtis Eller’s American Circus: A Poison Melody


Release Show: Saturday, Jun. 29, 9 p.m., $10–$12

Motorco Music Hall, Durham

The poison pen comes out early on A Poison Melody, the potent new album by Curtis Eller’s American Circus. That won’t surprise followers of the maniacal local banjo wizard, whose ten albums suggest what might have happened if Howard Zinn had abandoned academe to update Americana styles of yesteryear with a dose of punk.

“Hallelujah Nagasaki / All the boys are coming home,” Eller sardonically exults on the taut jump blues opener, “Radiation Poison,” to the air-raid-siren backing vocals of Dana Marks and Stacy Wolfson and the tasty tenor sax of Steve Cowles.

About half of the ten original songs (not counting a driving, gospel-tinged cover of Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”) satirize a range of distinctly unrepentant characters who are blind drunk on the privileges of class, race, and wealth. Why is the excitable narrator in the caffeinated dance number “Union Hall” taking his pistol downtown? “The Constitution said I can shoot what I want,” he brags before grilling us on our patriotism, all but shrieking by the end of the chorus, “I love the USA / Don’t you love it? / Don’t you feel OK?”

There’s more than a note of Randy Newman in “Before the Riot,” when the good lord himself comforts a possible white supremacist, and an alcoholic union buster reassures us that “Everybody loves a wealthy man / In a Cadillac automobile” in the New Orleans-inflected “Pay the Band.”

Alienation, the album’s other recurring theme, is usually handled tongue-in-cheek. William Dawson’s vibraphone gives a narcotic haze to the title track, a slow dance for single dancers. The broken waltz “No Words to Choose” begins as a sentimental song about going home and ends in distortion and detonation. Less guarded moments in “These Birds” and “Lenny Bruce” leaven Eller’s caustic wit on an accomplished album that improbably marries feel-good dance music with cutting social criticism.

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