REVIEW: Curtis McMurtry’s “Toothless Messiah” is Eclectic Innovation


Curtis McMurtry’s album Toothless Messiah is an eclectic innovation with the macabre suspense of southern gothic styles and characters’ contemporary hardships set to banjo, cello and shakers, and sometimes horns, saxes, and rain.  Taken from the musical playbook that includes acts like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Curtis McMurtry works musically at the edges of theatrical darkness with a calmer, muted, more stoic and contemporary political feel.

Toothless Messiah was produced by Curtis McMurtry; recorded and mixed by Evan Kaspar at Estuary Recording Studio in Austin; and mastered by Anna Frick at Airshow Mastering with album art and layout by Megan Anderson.

Musicians on the album are Curtis McMurtry on vocals, guitars, banjo, banjolele, alto saxophones; Diana Burgess on vocals, and cello; Taylor Turner on upright bass and bass guitar; Mike Meadows on drums and percussion; Daniel Fears on trombone; Roy Thomas on trumpet; Sterling Steffen on baritone saxophone; with Evan Kaspar on pedal steel, and leaf percussion on “Around My Neck”; and En Calzada on muted trumpet on “The Cavalry is Here.”

The opening song is under a minute long, a spoken word commentary in the rain on the Muslim Ban.  “How are you adjusting to the new regime?”  Good question.  Is the regime over yet? Is it only temporarily dormant?  Curtis McMurtry asks you to consider this.

Foreboding cello and banjo set the musical tone on “Food on the Table,” with shades of tortured characters in shadowy cadences.  Then shakers and horns on the title track deliver a song of struggle with syncopated banjo.

Then it’s “You Need Me to Betray You” with shakers and wood maracas and Curtis McMurtry’s signature minor key dark banjo.  “My teachers taught me not to trust” is this song’s twisted mantra with the pointed harmonies courtesy of Diana Burgess, and the saxophone tickling at your spine. “The leader matters less than the direction” is the commentary on social difficulty with horn and sax solos.

“Feeding on Parasites” opens in a rainstorm with the a cappella message “get used to starting over, don’t sink your roots too deep… as long as some of us survived, we have not lost.”  “Flowers Through the Stone” later echoes this style, toying with the idea that “we make submission our resistance.”

“The Cavalry is Here” is a suspenseful banjo with low horns and traces of world music and is another song about the weak emphasized with macabre cello and horns.

“Praise Ceasar” is entertaining, with a more creeping, macabre merriment-style musically. “Sometimes it takes a tyrant to get the rest of us to move” marks the centerpiece of the album. “Even though you don’t need my protection I guard you like a dog,” is the sentiment.

“Saltwood” is another song where the banjo entwinines with the cello, this time as an instrumental. “Dinosaurs” is emphatic shakers holding down the rhythm with clear banjo plucks and especially eerie pedal steel. “Around My Neck” is an ode to a toxic relationship.

It’s an evolved full album of wry political commentary, poetry, resistance, musical innovation and a dark shadowy energy.  Check it out here:

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