So Misunderstood: Squirrel Nut Zippers

In the 1990s, music was at a weird place.  For most, flannel-clad guitar gods ruled not only the radio waves but the entire music world.  It would take some grand stylistic gesture to break from the monotony of the Teen Spirit generation.  One of the most remembered (and, too often, maligned) acts of rebellion was the revival of swing and big band music.  Even within that subculture, things got a little generic, as faceless bands tried to cash in on what, even then, was seen as a soon to be passing fad.  Though The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy enjoyed the most attention and success, the most fascinating band in the scene was Chapel Hill’s Squirrel Nut Zippers.

The most important thing to understand about the Squirrel Nut Zippers is that they are not, and have never been a “swing” band.  Sure, they play songs that swing, but they are not as easily pegged as their zoot suit-clad contemporaries.  Instead, they play a bastard mix of hot jazz, ragtime, Dixieland, klezmer, and whatever else stumbles across their path.  The most famous lineup centered around vocalists Tom Maxwell, Jimbo Mathus and Katherine Whalen, who each brought a signature flair to their songs.  Also hanging around various incarnations were pianist (and former Asylum Street Spanker) Reese Grey, horn player Je Widenhouse and violinist Andrew Bird.  Yes, that Andrew Bird.

While the Zippers garnered the most success from their 1996 single “Hell,” the true pinnacle of their career was with the 1998 release of Perennial Favorites.  If you didn’t know better, you might think that the album, with its impressively strong set of eclectic tunes, was a best-of compilation.  However, it’s just a damn great album.  From the bayou strut of “Suits Are Picking Up The Bill” and “Evening At Lafitte’s” to menacing waltz of “Ghost Of Stephen Foster,” Perennial Favorites found the Zippers at their creative peak.  Then again, the band (now down to Mathus, Whalen and several longtime instrumentalists) are back together, and are plotting a new album for 2010.  Whether or not the new songs will stand up to their classic tracks is unclear, since no new music has come from the SNZ camp since 2000’s Bedlam Ballroom.  Though that album was just okay, it’s still better than most of the conventional, unoriginal drek that’s out there today.

Watch: Squirrel Nut Zippers – “The Ghost Of Stephen Foster” from Perennial Favorites

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~ by E. on December 29, 2009.

One Response to “So Misunderstood: Squirrel Nut Zippers”

  1. “drek” is the word, my friend.

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