Half a century before Slayer and Judas Priest laid their claims to
evil with electric guitars and Marshall stacks, jazz musicians
conveyed the same catalog of sin with relatively humble trumpets and
The Squirrel Nut Zippers know all about how those fondly remembered
"good old days" were far, far from innocent. Even the sweet title
of their new CD, Perennial Favorites, could stand for the
timeless, age-old attraction to lust, crime, danger and general bad
Ever since their single "Hell" took off last year on alt-rock radio,
the Zippers have been proving to The Kids that "school-band" instruments, when handled properly, can be creepier than Marilyn Manson and more dangerous than gangsta rap.
Far from a re-hash of "old tyme" music, the SNZ's effect is
achieved through a careful unearthing, a reading between the lines,
a musical archaeological dig that turns up bits of jazz, calypso,
swing, old horror-film source music, Yiddish folk tunes, Henry Miller
and Jim Thompson paperbacks and the march of the Seven Dwarfs. The
band climbs beneath the surface of American music and luxuriates within the hot, dirty underbelly.
Just listen to track three, "Ghost of Stephen Foster." Sounding like the Mogen David-soaked aftermath of a Jewish wedding, singer/guitarist Jim Mathus conjures the dark side of this all-American songwriter as he sings about the original "Camptown Ladies" (prostitutes) with the right touch of decadence. Opening with an extended graveyard/zombie/creaky fiddle instrumental which then lurches into a jittery horn frenzy (complete with haunting "doo da day" chorus), this strongly recalls Tom Waits during his Swordfishtrombones era.
While "life on the road" songs are a dime a dozen, "Trou Macacq" is scarcely recognizable as such -- skins pounded with human-bone drumsticks and distorted cartoon-demon vocals (relating lyrics about the band as monkeys riding the rails) will give even Satanists the creeps.
"Soon" is without a doubt the perfect soundtrack to a nightmare (kids, stay away), for the downright-threatening, relentless drumbeat and scratchy singing that promises the ultimate in terror -- just around the corner.
As far as "sin" and "lust" go, the SNZ's secret weapon in this department is singer Katharine Whalen (splitting vocal duties with Mathus, and missed when absent), whose smoky pipes and sleepy delivery make her a dead ringer for Billie Holiday. Whalen is a true master of her instrument, soaking each phrase and syllable on "My Drag" and "Low Down Man" with a languid, humid air.
On "The Kraken," Whalen sounds as frightening as a wispy, bloodless little black-and-white ghost in an old movie reel, flitting around your ear, whispering your name as her papery wings rustle, giving you a chill that even the fattest down comforter won't fix.
Not everything on Perennial Favorites is dark, of course; there are the light 'n' jolly "Pallin' With Al" and the Dixieland party-time "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill." But this band is at its best when it's bad, though the tag-team vocals (a hint of X) and bouncing tempos on "Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter" manage to make this track both sinister and fun.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers create soundtracks for films not yet invented, movies playing nightly in the heads of sleeping children who know that everything is scarier in black and white.