Curtis Eller, Wirewalkers and Assassins (American Circus Records, 2008)
Curtis Eller could be Sufjan Stevens’ crazy older brother. Both Eller and Stevens are banjo-wielding, history-obsessive troubadours born in Michigan, but whereas Sufjan’s style is more sedate and gentle–the blue-eyed angel of Indie music–Eller is a little wilder looking, a more unpredictable performer, and isn’t afraid to get in yer face with his American tales of long-dead presidents, robber barons, and of course, Wirewalkers and Assassins, the title of his newest album.
Now residing in NYC, Eller was born and raised in Detroit and the city’s mythology still lives in his imaginative arsenal of reference points, whether singing about “diggin’ up Henry Ford” in the hard-charging “Firing Squad” or invoking our legendary boxing icon in the melancholic sweetness of “Save me Joe Louis.” Other songs have Eller singing in unusual roles, such as the distressed wife of a wirewalker in “The Plea of the Aerialist’s Wife” and as John Wilkes Booth in “The Curse of Cain.” And if one song about John Wilkes Booth isn’t enough for you, Wirewalkers and Assassins gives us two. “John Wilkes Booth (Don’t Make Us Beg)” is a rompin’ boogie that asks “Where is John Wilkes Booth when you need him?” (and later, Lee Harvey Oswald) and you kind of get the feeling that Eller isn’t singing about the 19th or 20th centuries here.
You don’t need to know anything about the Volstead Act or Robert Moses or the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 to enjoy this sometimes sorrowful, sometimes foot-stompingly fun album. But it’s likely you’ll start getting curious as you find yourself singing these immediately memorable songs in your head. — Scotter Bragg