Squirrel Nut Zippers' Adventures in Jazz, Folk, and...Klezmer?
A Review of the Squirrel Nut Zippers'
Perennial Favorites (Mammoth Records, 1998)

     At the avant-garde of the new, "hard-boiled swing" movement (to borrow the Royal Crown Revue's term) is North Carolina's Squirrel Nut Zippers. Before the Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot" and the Brian Setzer Orchestra's cover of Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail" began climbing the pop charts this summer, there was last summer's big hit, "Hell," the Zippers' jazzy stomp. That and its follow-up single, "Put a Lid on It," earned the band national notice and even a place on one of the New Year's Eve live "countdown" shows.

     Yet, while they share the punk do-it-yourself spirit that inspired many of these new swing bands to revive the genre, the Zippers aren't really a swing band. Their music owes much more to the hot jazz of the '20s and '30s -- to groups like Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, and Fats Waller and His Rhythm. On their new CD, Perennial Favorites, they move a bit further from their neo-big-band comrades and reveal the influence of Raymond Scott and even John Cage. The style of Scott, a bandleader best known for compositions later used in scores of Warner Brothers cartoons, crops up most prominently in the Zippers' "The Kraken." The angular, dissonant jazz of "Kraken" recalls Scott pieces like "Powerhouse" (often used as machinery-out-of-control music in the cartoons) and the lesser-known "Bumpy Weather Over Newark."

     While the "bumpy" eclecticism of tracks like "Kraken" may alienate fans of Hot, there's plenty on Perennial Favorites that ought to please the band's growing audience. There's the opening cut and first single, "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill," as well as "Low Down Man," "Evening at Lafitte's," "Pallin' with Al" -- the last of which is a tribute to Fats Waller's guitarist, Al Casey. These songs are more traditional fare, and should satisfy those who loved Hot and the band's debut, The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers. Indeed, on my first listen, these are the songs that I liked best. But, after a few more times through, I began to enjoy the more adventurous songs just as much.

     One adventuresome song that deserves a special mention is "Ghost of Stephen Foster," which imagines a drunken conversation with the Pennsylvania-born composer of "Camptown Ladies," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Oh Susanna!" and other American classics. After a minute-long, slow introductory violin piece that sounds like Eastern European klezmer music (it reminded me of the Hungarian band Muzikas), the song picks up the pace and the lyrics begin. Tom Mathus, one of the band's principal songwriters and singers, challenges the version of the South depicted in Foster's songs: "Camptown ladies never sang all the doo-dah day," he tells us.

     Nor did they get to play with a CD-rom all the doo-dah day. The album's interactive component is just as good -- if not better -- than the CD-rom included on Hot. It works on both Apple and IBM-compatible machines (given, of course, that the machine a CD-rom, 32-bytes of RAM, and other system requirements), and offers insight into the songs by providing film of recording sessions, interviews, and even some of singer Katharine Whalen's artwork. If, like me, you enjoy knowing all the trivia about the recording of an album, you'll enjoy this part. If not, or if you don't have a fancy-enough computer, then just put on the CD, and let the horns, saxophone, violin, guitar and banjo transport you to the Zippers' end-of-the-century mix of hot jazz, American and European folk songs, and other musical adventures.

© 1998 by Phil Nel. All rights reserved.