Goodness me. Has it really been a whole year since we started up Echo Base? And has it really been 20 years since I first discovered the Squirrel Nut Zippers? Really? It has been? I looked up the stats on Wikipedia and other, less reliable, sources and it would seem to be the case. Golly! How time do fly.
Well allow me to pat our collective Echo Base backs for a second, and then proceed to note that Squirrel Nut Zippers’ 1996 LP ‘Hot’ has recently been reissued on 180 gram vinyl to commemorate the occasion. With your indulgence, I’m going to have a moment of reflection.
I first became aware of Squirrel Nut Zippers thanks to the eerie, offbeat video for the eerie, offbeat song “Hell”. Back in 1996, there was this channel on the television called MTV that would actually play music videos. (Insane, right?) Mind you, most of the stuff they played was pretty much mainstream dreck, but if you tuned in later in the day, like say after midnight, you might catch more off-beam fare. And that’s pretty much how I stumbled across “Hell” and Squirrel Nut Zippers.
I seem to remember turning on the TV just as the song was starting. Whether this is a true moment of serendipity in my life, or simply my brain rewiring memory for more dramatic effect I can’t be sure. Whatever the case, I was immediately hooked. The setting is an old TV studio and the band are arranged as if appearing on some naff variety show. But their make-up and the darkened atmosphere immediately signal that something is “off”. The calypso beat of the music is underscored by a strummed bass ukulele that keeps everything slightly askew. The lyrics warn of degradation in “the Afterlife” for real or imagined transgressions in the here and now. The overall effect was that of David Lynch directing an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. Obviously I bought the CD the very next day.
Coincidentally, 1996 was the year the movie ‘Swingers’ introduced the so-called Neo Swing scene to a wider audience. Bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Royal Crown Revue had been steadily gaining followings for their amplified, up-tempo takes on the 40’s and 50’s style of dance band music. Former Stray Cat Brian Setzer had been leading a full-on big band since 1990. (Setzer would go on to top the charts and win a Grammy for his 1998 cover of Louis Prima’s 1956 hit “Jump, Jive & Wail”.) With it’s emphasis on style, clothes and energetic dancing, Neo Swing appealed to a wider variety of “scenes” than one might have expected. Ska-loving punkers, misfit fashionistas and Rockabilly rebels could all be spotted in the crowd at a Neo Swing-type show. Sure, it may have convinced a lot of dudes who had no business doing so that they could wear Fedoras, but the music and scene were undeniably fun.
Squirrel Nut Zippers formed in 1993 in North Carolina. Almost from the start they were different from many of their Neo Swing contemporaries. They had a looser, more homemade aesthetic and sound than did, say, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. A lot of the Neo Swing bands struck me as being a bit, well, “smirky” about their approach to the music they were supposedly honoring. Jump Blues and Swing bands of the 40’s and 50’s might seem kitsch or hokey to modern audiences, but the truth is you could trace the crazed energy and rebellious spirit of Rock and Punk right back through to those bands.
The Zippers didn’t have that “smirk” to my ears. They weren’t hiding behind “kitsch”. They sounded like a bunch of punks who were trying to honestly play swing music. Their first record, 1995’s ‘The Inevitable’, is ramshackle and awkward but it gets by on rough hewn charm. The three main vocalists – James “Jimbo” Mathus, Katharine Whalen, and Tom Maxwell – all had distinct styles that they were still coming to grips with. Mathus had a slurry, lugubrious quality; Maxwell sounded like a deranged choirboy. Whalen’s voice was the most interesting, but it was clear she wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. Playing on self-taught second hand instruments, The Zippers seemed on that first record like the world’s most sincere novelty act.
‘Hot’ was an altogether different creature. Whalen’s voice had gained an authority that was lacking on ‘The Inevitable’. The songs were more focused and the band was tighter without sacrificing the manic energy; it no longer seemed like everyone was playing catch up with everyone else. It was, in every respect, a step up from their debut. Remarkably, it was recorded in just six days. Even more remarkably, it became an out-of-left-field surprise hit in the summer of ’96 thanks mostly to the aforementioned “Hell” and another track titled “Put A Lid On It.” Both of these songs had videos that were played regularly on MTV – and one of my more bizarre memories is hearing “Hell” crash into the middle of a Top-40 format radio station’s playlist as my then-girlfriend and I drove to Washington, D.C.. To say it sounded wonderfully out of place is an understatement.
Twenty years later, the rest of the album holds up surprisingly well. Again, there’s nothing “kitsch” about their approach to the music. The arrangements and instrumentation suggest a different era, but it’s filtered through a very modern perspective. Whalen and Maxwell’s vocals in particular add a timeless quality to the proceedings. On “Twilight”, Maxwell’s vocal is tense and nervous sounding, completely at odds with the sweetly languid musical backdrop. He’s shadowed by another voice, which might be Whalen’s or Mathus, or maybe Maxwell himself singing in a higher register. It leaves the listener oddly unsettled. “It Ain’t You” sees Whalen giving a performance that I can only describe as a punk rock Billie Holiday.
The band’s next record was released in 1998 right at the height of the Neo Swing fad. In my opinion, ‘Perennial Favorites’ is their best work. Again, there was a progression forward; the band would never sound as good on record as they do here. Whalen gives a brilliant, aching performance on “Low Down Man” which literally melts into the ominous “Ghost of Stephen Foster”. Later, Maxwell offers up “The Kraken” – a demented Raymond Scott tribute until exactly halfway through when it turns into a spectral torch song. I saw Squirrel Nut Zippers on the ‘Perennial Favorites’ tour and I am happy to say they were every bit as manic and oddly wonderful as I’d hoped they’d be. (I’m also lucky enough to say I saw them with Andrew Bird before he became the offbeat solo star he is today.)
Then one day in 2000 I bought the new Zippers LP ‘Bedlam Ballroom’ and realized that half the band was missing. The absence of Tom Maxwell and saxophonist Ken Mosher was particularly glaring. In their place, a slicker, more polished sound had scrubbed away the eccentricity that gave Squirrel Nut Zippers so much character. That was a bad day, Comrades; and more were to follow.
Now here comes the announcement that Squirrel Nut Zippers are reuniting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ‘Hot’ with a tour and a fancy 180 gram vinyl release – something that I doubt ever happened back in the CD-crazed world of 1996. (Fun Fact: CDs were once the absolute pinnacle of sound quality and there would never be a better audio format EVER. It’s true!) This news warmed the cockles of my bitter, twisted heart… until I read a statement from Tom Maxwell confirming that himself, Ken Mosher and Katharine Whalen would not be along for this “reunion”. In fact, the only original members are Jimbo Mathus and drummer Chris Phillips. Now, Phillips is a kick-ass drummer and Mathus is a fine guitar player, but I’m sorry… that simply is not Squirrel Nut Zippers. My bitter, twisted heart cockles returned to their state of perpetual chilliness.
However, it has been a genuine pleasure to reacquaint myself with the album ‘Hot’. I do the odd DJ gig in my off-hours, and “Hell” is a particular favorite of mine to drop in when the punters least expect it. It never fails to get an enthusiastic reaction. As great as that is, there are many little treasures to love on this record. Maybe it’s time I start chucking a few others into the mix; like “Bad Businessman” (it would certainly be timely, given Trump’s ascendance) or “It Ain’t You”. I tell you one thing, Comrades: I’m definitely playing “The Kraken” next time I DJ. Let’s see how that one goes over, shall we?
So, Happy Birthday to ‘Hot’. Next year, when you’re 21, I’ll buy you a shot. Anything but Sambuca.
The 180 gram anniversary edition of ‘Hot’ is available at all fine record shops and via snzippers.com.
For further reading, including a truly wonderful look into the writing of the song “Hell”, check out Tom Maxwell’s book “Hell: My Life In The Squirrel Nut Zippers”