Thursday, October 11, 2007 ... 1:26 PM

Return of the Squirrel Nut Zippers

Once in awhile, Charlotte doesn't totally suck. For instance, the recently reassembled Squirrel Nut Zippers have inexplicably -- but totally welcomely -- added the Queen City to the Fall leg of their come-back itinerary. They'll stop here, and in Raleigh (of course), and Greensboro (uhrr...) before they hit the highway for the Losses: Angeles and Vegas. I don't know if I can afford to go ($25 a pop! just in time for birthdays and car repairs for holiday travels and oh yes the season of giving), but God damn, I want to.

Anyway I'm happy to see the Zippers return with what appears to be (though I can't say for sure) all the principals back on the roster. (3pm update: Well, shit. From what I've seen on Tom Maxwell's websites, he hasn't re-joined the group after all. I should probably do this sort of surfing before I write a whole long post. Well anyway, I guess that sort of eases the quandary: SNZ concert ... or birthday present for the kid?)

In the 1990s they made three endlessly fun, sort of insane albums (and a not-too-bad Christmas record) that I think were dismissed unduly, and ironically, as a result of their beautiful, meticulous production values. The suggestion of nostalgia (vintage, naturally roomy warmth, po-mo lyrical dives into Ye Olde, Weird America) made it easy to write them off as a shallow novelty act along the lines of contemporaries like Space. (Remember Space? They made that catchy song "Female of the Species" for the first Austin Powers movie. Remember when there was only one Austin Powers movie? There's some nostalgia.) And yeah it's true, the Zippers were also shoe-horned into that idiotic "Swing Revival" -- which, though unfair to some degree, probably behooved them more than it tripped them up. Would they be coming back now were it not for that somewhat unsavory market positioning ten years ago?

But no, they weren't a "swing band," though they experimented with some swing and some jump blues, along with calypso, Dixieland jazz, klezmer, honky tonk ballads, and so forth. I think the Zippers are more accurately a brassy (horny?) branch of the 2nd generation of Alt-Country, or "No Depression," or Americana or whatever, which was working up a lather just as the Zippers were forming in, after all, Chapel Hill -- putting them in the same womb as Whiskeytown, and Trailer Bride (whose ex-frontwoman Melissa Swingle now fronts The Moaners, whose recent album was produced by the Zippers' Jimbo Mathus). OK, I won't pretend to understand the 1990s Chapel Hill scene. I was a teenager outside of D.C. then, listening to WHFS. But the Zippers have always sounded to me like a rural Southern band, greasy and Gothic, in contrast to the clean pressed plastic metrosexual feel of, say (and I'd rather not), Cherry Poppin Daddies. Listening to the Zippers now, I mainly hear shades of Old Crow Medicine Show, who are probably as often mis-labeled "Bluegrass" as the Zippers were "Swing."

I liked to listen to them, but I never knew much about the inner workings of the band -- only that principals Jimbo Mathus and Katharine Whalen courted and married over the course of those first three terrific Zippers albums, and when they separated, the group split up with them. But I know the Zippers really faltered earlier than that, when 3rd principal (maybe 3rd wheel) Tom Maxwell left the band. Maxwell was, it turned out, the streak of anarchy that really gave the Zippers their, ah, zip. When he jumped ship for whatever reason, the Zippers recorded Bedlam Ballroom, a fourth proper album as flat and wafer-thin as the other records were chunky, shadowy, and challenging. I only listened to it maybe three times, when it first came out, and it sounded to me like exactly the kind of superficially nostalgic shiny dross they'd wrongly been lumped in with. It sounded like a, er... Swing Revival album.

So I guess it's good they quit when they did. But I'm glad they're back.

Just in case you never paid them notice past their 15 minutes of Buzz Bin fame with the Calypso single "Hell," here's a good glimpse at what you missed. Man, I think it sounds weirder and more labyrinthine today than it did then.

Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"


Flop Eared Mule
The Celestial Monochord
Dig and Be Dug in Return
Modern Acoustic Magazine / Blog
The Old, Weird America
Honey, Where You Been So Long?

The Greensboro Review
Mixed Animal
Night Train
Fried Chicken and Coffee
Mungo (This was the blog of my friend, the late Cami Park. Miss you, Cami.)
Staccato Fiction
PANK Magazine

Cat and Girl
Film Freak Central