the retro movement's finally reached back past Fifties
kitsch and found something new: swing. And with
pop-culture's inimitable way with labels, it's even
given it a name: neo-swing. It might be unpleasant
to consider how vital a thirty-second Gap commercial
might have been for solidifying the revival, but
hey: at least it's here.
The only problem: some of the
neo-swing stuff isn't really swing. Or rather, it
isn't merely swing. Or, to borrow another
term, big band. The best 'neo-swing' band
to emerge so far—the Squirrel
Nut Zippers—certainly doesn't sound
like the smooth, sophisticated stuff made famous
by big band leaders like Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey.
Or Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman. Or Fletcher Henderson.
Or Duke Ellington.
Big band or swing: whatever you
want to call that brassy, danceable music from the
Thirties and Forties, it doesn't begin to cover
the stuff the Squirrel Nut Zippers rip through.
So we need to widen our terminology
a bit here: swing...big band...postmodern.
Don't be frightened, kids. It
won't bite—at least not hard.
is one of those words people drop into conversation
after a slight, uncertain hesitation because—I
think—nobody knows what the hell it means,
precisely. Used as a pejorative, it's a workable
substitute for 'pastiche'—the irritating tendency
to offer a hodge-podge of others' styles rather
than pursuing your own. In architecture, postmodernism
gives us buildings with Roman arches and Spanish
towers—or Gothic facades with Mies van der
Rohe sheets of glass for windows. It's a style without
period because its history is so diverse—and
In music, it means—again,
I think—that we get 'neo-swing' bands
like the Squirrel Nut Zippers that offer us a hodge-podge
collection of musical styles from various periods.
On one track, they're an early New Orleans jazz
combo in a mad-cap free-for-all. In the next track,
they're a house tango band.
If they're good at mimicry—and
the Squirrel Nut Zippers are very good—the
effect can be mesmerizing. Such diverse postmodern
appropriation ('theft' in older dictionaries) implies
uncontainable creativity—these guys are literally
so creative they can't narrow it down to a single
The risk, though, is that the
whole thing will come off sounding like a sampler:
which Zippers group do you actually like?
The crazy Cab Calloway stuff? You probably won't
like track two, then. Like the klezmer sound? Skip
At heart, naysayers might begin
to wonder if there really is one band behind
Or why—if there is one band—does
the CD get stuck in the 'pop-rock' bin at the record
store. Rock, it seems, is the one thing the Squirrel
Nut Zippers don't cover.
there's another pitfall for the Zippers, and it's
much more troubling in the short-term. By naming
themselves (as good postmodernists) after a pre-existing
pop-culture product—a trademarked candy—they've
gotten themselves in a pickle. As of May 23rd, the
Squirrel Brand Corporation's new owner (Southern
Style Nuts) is suing the Zippers for the use of
its name. Of course, you'd think they'd want the
free promotion—you could even order the candy
off the official Squirrel Nut Zippers web site,
before the brouhaha—but that's where it stands.
Worse: according to Ken Mosher
(one of the Zippers' sax players), as of May 21st,
"Mammoth Records, who contractually agreed
to support the band in defense of the Squirrel Brand
Corporation lawsuit, has now stopped paying their
legal bills, and therefore withdrawn their legal
support of the band."
Odysseus, trying to make his way
back to Ithaca after the Trojan War, couldn't have
felt much worse when he came upon Scylla and Charybdis,
bubbling and swirling and smashing rocks and just
daring him to skirt between the two.
He, after all, didn't have a lucrative
musical career ahead of him. Trojan successes lay
behind him, and, as Tennyson pointed out, he had
nothing to look forward to but his family and "a
savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed,
and know not me." The Zippers, with a handful
of albums under their belt—each one outselling
the last—have their glorious moments ahead
Or will, if the brouhaha blows
aren't good, though. Recently, the band canceled
its tour dates for the fall. And briefly in April,
the name of the official web site (run by Mosher)
was changed to 'The Squirrel Not Zippers'—whether
it was simply a gesture of frustration or an Odyssean
stab at Skylla and Charybdis isn't clear.
Whalen, the Zippers' lead vocalist, recently
said in an interview that the band is now concentrating
on producing another album, though.
In the meantime, a few of the
band members are releasing their own CDs, with fellow
Zippers performing as guests. James Mathus, the
Zippers' co-founder (and Whalen's husband), has
recorded his second CD as Jas. Mathus and His Knockdown
Society; it's slated for a spring release. The Zippers'
violinist, Andrew Bird, has recorded a new album with
his band, Bowl of Fire,
and it's set to be released later this summer (it's
the band's second CD). He also appears as violinist
and lead vocalist on the new Kevin
O'Donnell's Quality Six release, Heretic
Blues. (Actually, it's
the same band as Bowl of Fire, plus two horn players,
but O'Donnell leads it rather than Bird; hence the
name change, I suppose). And Whalen herself has
a new solo release (Katherine
Whalen's Jazz Squad) that hit
stores May 25th.
Andrew Bird is probably the guy to watch. Although
he's not officially a Zipper, he's played with the
band since their first big success—Hot—and
he has toured with them extensively. Like the Zippers,
his music is wonderfully eclectic. On his Bowl of
Fire CD from last year (Thrills), he moved
from early jazz to Bertolt Brecht to Stephane Grapelli
and Django Reinhardt to Robert Johnson and closed
with a couple beautiful country blues tunes.
Consider: as a bonus, he adapted
a Heinrich Heine poem and even sang one verse in
German. (Side notes: Robert Schumann used the poem
as well in his Dichterliebe song cycle; Whalen sings
harmony in Bird's adaptation.) Lyrics from another
track ("A Woman's Life and Love," sung
by Whalen) were drawn from another German poem.
And if that's not enough to convince you this twenty-five-year-old
wunderkind's an itinerate postmodernist,
he even ended the opening track with a passage from
Bach's Partita in D Minor for unaccompanied violin.
Bird is a stunningly talented
musician. Where Grapelli—jazz's perennial
favorite violinist—is heavy-handed and plodding,
Bird is stunningly delicate and brilliantly gentle.
While the cabaret elements on Thrills can
be a bit dark and aggressive (Bird sometimes sounds
like someone reading a Christopher Isherwood novel
aloud after drinking too many absinthes), he can
turn the mood quite suddenly and beautifully into
a gentle, lush respite. In general, he's certainly
more introspective than the Zippers would ever be.
And with a music degree from Northwestern
University (he now teaches at the Institute for
Early Music), he's remarkably knowledgeable and
accurate in reproducing period-appropriate sound.
(Thrills, for example, was recorded with
a single microphone, just as music was captured
in the infancy of the recording era.) So while he
moves back and forth across a wide scope of musical
styles, he's certainly not guilty of offering watered-down
Now, having said that, I should
quickly add that Bird's work on Heretic Blues
is quite different from his Thrills. Or rather,
while Bird puts in the same often delicate and beautiful
performances on violin, the music behind and around
him is from another era altogether.
Specifically, instead of the free-for-all
Thirties and earlier, think of sophisticated, meticulous
bepop and cool jazz of the Fifties—and even
some early Stan Getz in a few passages. At times,
frankly, Bird's style of playing (and choice of
instrument) seems out of place. Plus, while Bird
wrote most of his own material for Thrills,
O'Donnell wrote most of the songs on Heretic
Blues, and the lyrics don't begin to offer the
depth or darkness Bird's have.
If you like the Zippers for their
wide-ranging styles and loose performances, you'll
probably prefer Thrills over Heretic Blues—but
look later this summer for news about Bird's second
Bowl of Fire release.
similar pattern holds true for Katherine
Whalen's new Jazz Squad. In a departure from
Zippers work, Whalen offers a much more consistent,
if less ambitious take on a narrow field—small-combo
jazz of the sort Billie Holiday was producing with
Columbia in the 1930s and 40s. Whalen can certainly
stretch out a melody and add world-weary yet vibrant
flourishes like Holiday, and rather than downplay
the references, she actually takes on several Holiday
standards for the new release. And with the references
come the naysayers' cries of mere mimicry.
To which one can only say: let
This is a beautiful album. The
pace is mostly slow, as befits the Holiday references,
but at times Whalen sings a little higher, a little
more exuberantly, and the effect shifts strangely
from Billie Holiday to Blossom Dearie. But it's
a lovely, careful performance throughout, and the
only element that would be out of place on a Holiday
Verve recording is the occasional banjo performance
from James Mathus (who also plays guitar on the
album). It's a welcome anachronism, though, bringing
a touch of early New Orleans jazz to the mix.
One of the best tracks is a wonderful
version of "After You've Gone." Though
it starts out slowly, Whalen manages a wonderfully
decadent, even exuberant take on the word 'gone,'
signaling the song's tempo change at the first repeat.
It's a shimmering performance, with particularly
nice clarinet playing by Mike Minguez. (Side note:
the Zippers sorely need a clarinet player for their
klezmer-influenced songs, and Minguez would be wonderful.)
Other noteworthy tracks include a fast, swinging
"Sugar," which sports a great New Orleans
banjo and some nice horn work, and "All My
Life," which stands out for Cecil Johnson's
soulful, Ben Webster-style sax work and Whalen's
superbly inventive approach to the melody.
This is, in short, a wonderful
Still, that loose, zany, wide-ranging,
postmodern fun the Zippers offer is sorely missed.
We can only hope, I suppose, that their legal woes
don't last as long as the Trojan War.