Curtis Eller makes no secrets of or apologies for his vaudevillian ways. His tunes are campy, the Durham songwriter admits, even offering a tongue-in-cheek warning on the Bandcamp page for his latest record, How to Make it in Hollywood: "Warning: This Album Contains No Guitars."
That comes as no surprise to those familiar with the veteran singer and banjo player's eccentric ways. Delightfully anachronistic, Eller name-checks actors, musicians, politicians and generals from the Civil War to the Vietnam era. Hollywood contains more references to his favorite historical figures, like a genuine ballad begging for another Elvis song and the sauntering "Busby Berkeley Funeral," which casts a half-dozen Hollywood stars of the '30s and '40s in the director's production of a funeral. With a chorus of woozy revelers, that song's radiant refrain buoys the back half of the 10-track album.
The highlight, however, finds Eller strangely plugging his banjo into what he describes as a "blasted-out tube amplifier" to craft '60s garage crunch worthy of MC5 or ? and the Mysterians (perhaps as an homage to Eller's hometown of Detroit?). During this "Battlefield Amputation," Eller sings of Roosevelt and Hoover with rock 'n' roll aplomb, his howls and guitar-mocking fuzz backed by Farfisa-esque organ and backing vocals that'd make Motown proud.
Eller's expanded band, American Circus, deserves some credit for Hollywood's advances. They add key flourishes absent from his previous work, casting moods better than he could alone.
The opening stomp-and-jangle tune "Old-Time Religion" and the darker, off-kilter "Moses in the Bulrushes" both pit gospel influences against lyrical themes that are hardly pious. Eller's references don't always click, though; his juxtaposition of Robert E. Lee's surrender and Sonny Liston's defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali is a stretch. But Hollywood proves Eller can rise above kitsch by linking American history and eccentricity with folk and sincerity.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Histories and Frontiers."