As I write this, the Dow-Jones is breaking 10,000, and the economy looks to be coming out of a slump — even though nobody’s hiring just yet. Most folks who still have jobs are hanging on by their fingernails, but the privileged classes are already talking about bonuses. A popular Democratic president is trying to pass meaningful health-care reform, and the postideological spoilsports of the Right are pitching a hissy fit. Holy crap, it’s 1993 again! And right on cue, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are back together!
To ease into this reunion thing — and to whet your appetite for new material — they’ve released a live album this week, culled from one hot night in Brooklyn late last year. It’s called Lost At Sea, but a better title might be Testing the Waters. Because, really, of all the 1990s bands that might make a go of it in this transformed pop landscape, I’ve gotta ask: the Squirrel Nut Zippers? C’mon.
All right, that’s not exactly a question. But still; it’s a mystery how these guys got big in the first place, let alone how they might have a comeback. The Great Swing Scare of the 90s remains one of those vaguely mystifying moments in the popular culture. Sure, yuppie scum have never lacked for any number of idiotic pastimes to separate them from their money — but really: A-line skirts? Lindy Hop lessons? What possessed us?
It’s been suggested that the irrational exuberance of the market engendered a cultural echo of the Roaring Twenties. Maybe. Or maybe it was yet another strategy for Generation X to defer adulthood. The fashions, the cocktails, the foxtrots and the Charleston — all comprised a reach toward the trappings of sophistication, without a full commitment to constructing a grown-up identity, responding to the dilemma How do I avoid turning into my parents? by embracing an idealized version of their grandparents; it was suddenly okay to wear a suit, as long as you did it ironically.
(Not coincidentally, the Swing Revival ended at about the moment that Gen Xers started having kids of their own; and so they transitioned to new ways of staving off adulthood, mostly by vicariously sharing in the childhoods of their offspring — signing up for Mommy and Me classes, watching Yo Gabba Gabba!, writing trend pieces about “kidults“ and “alternadads,” and coming no closer to swing music than their regular Saturday-night date with A Prairie Home Companion.)
Regardless of the sociological implications, the Swing Revival hinged on the music, and here — as with any such cultural moment — the quality was variable. You had some genuine, huge talents revealing an unexpected affinity for jump and jive (e.g., Brian Setzer), a whole lot of trend-hoppers (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, I’m lookin’ at you), and the usual assortment of marching-band refugees looking for some way to put their horns to good use once the latest wave of ska fizzed out. The Squirrel Nut Zippers were probably the best of the bunch, and certainly seemed the most authentic.
It probably helped that they were from North Carolina. Pop fans have been conditioned by long experience to accept, and even expect, a certain level of eccentricity from Southern bands, and that’s generally worked to their advantage; let’s face it, the B-52s probably never would have made it as a going concern if they’d come out of, say, Detroit.
In the case of the Zippers, the mythic images of the South played into their particular gimmick. You could almost imagine them as a cotillion band gone horribly wrong, leaving bevies of traumatized debutantes in their wake as they rampaged from gig to gig. The sound was raucous and expansive; the manner was genteel charm ramped up to cartoon proportions. Frontman Jimbo Mathus came on like Foghorn Leghorn with a special emphasis on the “foghorn,” while man-faced ukulelist Katharine Whalen triangulated a performance style somewhere between Minnie Mouse, Betty Boop, and Jessica Rabbit.
On record it sometimes came off as affected and shticky — how could it not? — but the band had a fierce live reputation. Lost At Sea shows that their powers are undimmed. The Zippers — in this incarnation, at least — emerge more as a rock band with horns than the Dixieland pranksters of the studio, with electric bass and nasty guitars to the fore.
The prominence of the electric guitar is the biggest revelation here, in fact. On “Good Enough For Grandad” (download) — a title that functions almost as a manifesto — big-toned, semi-distorted hollowbodies hold down the changes in the absence of a piano, and take swooping, stinging runs amid the blat of the horns. Dude’s no Brian Setzer, but it’s pretty smokin’ stuff.
The pace lags a bit at times — and frankly, a little of Whalen’s pitchy kootchie-koo act goes a lo-o-ong way with me — but when the SNZs are hitting on all cylinders (as on “Suits Are Picking Up The Bill” [download]), it’s downright compulsive; the high-energy drumming, the tag-team instrumental breaks, that manic good cheer of it all.
For many young professionals, the boom days of the 1990s ended too soon. Lost At Sea doesn’t, but unlike the dreary decade just past, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, either. It remains to be seen, though, whether there’s a place for the Squirrel Nut Zippers in this brave new post-millennial economy. For a band so determinedly backward-looking, it would be an irony both cruel and poetic if they should end up on the nostalgia circuit.