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1890 by Curtis Eller's American Circus

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Reviewed on 22nd March 2004.



By Curtis Eller's American Circus

Weird is good. Wonderful is better. Weird and wonderful cannot be beaten with anything.

This here artefact, electronically emitting noise like a raree-show demon from the audio equipment to my right is Curtis Eller's first CD album, recorded by himself in league with his very own and very mighty American Circus. There has been a second album and a third is as good as promised. Postmodernism and the passage of time notwithstanding, we must start at the beginning.

By the year 2000, Curtis had left his life as a juggler in the circus, lured by the mercenary possibilities of banjo playing and the heady aroma of bigger audiences in the Big Apple. Fashioning himself as "New York's most aggressive yodelling banjo player", he has eked out some kind of life as he waited for his luck to change, for the blood to return to his heart and for the chance to play Leeds' Royal Park Cellars, in England.

With two out of three ambitions in the bag, I hear tell he is fastening up his desperate Uncle's sea trunk, even as we speak. A journey to England is imminent and a headline spot at 39 Queens' Road is more or less agreed. Please don't form a queue till I've got my ticket. I thank you.

On this glittering gem of an album, you have to wait till the last but one track for the yodelling to start - and it ain't a moment too late. "Hornets in the Daisies" is an altogether beautiful song, with harmonica, Elizabeth Walsh and drums and banjo and everything. The yodelling is just the climactic cheesecake on the biscuit. I love it to death.

It's hard sticking to the plot, dear reader. The CD is all that's fine about the United States of America: it's all the finery that you only see if you live there, or if you read the cheap comics. It's smart, it's witty, it's funny, it has great tunes. And it has banjo playing with breaking-bottle percussion and Curtis Eller's deadpan voice, long legs and improbable moustache (pronounced muss-tash). His prime musical influence is said to be the silent movie comic, Buster Keaton, although killer pedal steel guitar was never Mr Keaton's forte. Curtis's subjects are drawn from the rejected anecdotes of Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammet and Ray Bradbury. Where the Handsome Family do botany and zoology, Curtis Eller does American folk history and the role of revivalist religion in the persecution of poor sinners. It's a cross between alt-country and alt-time religion, with circus additives. You might just be musing on the cinematic opus "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" as track 6 "Sinner, You Better Get Ready" scares the shit out of you. Harmonies like those can make quince jelly set when the lemon juice has failed.

If you truly fear Jesus, get yourself down to see this guy, and buy all his albums. You might be in with a chance of redemption.



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