A few years back Johnny (Rotten) Lydon was doing some kind of red carpet interview job and shoved a calendar into the hands of Brian Setzer; the joke being that Setzer had given up rockabilly to travel even further back in the wayback machine to the era of swing for his latest album. The Brian Setzer Orchestra definitely does swing, but let’s face it, if you really want to hear modern day swing music at its best then you have bite into the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
The single from the Squirrel Nut Zippers album Hot entitled “Hell” was a minor hit back in the mid-90s, and one of the ten best songs of the decade. Unlike Brian Setzer, the Zippers weren’t just chasing down a fad, they live and breathe swing and jazz. “Hell” is a great song not so much because it’s a wicked throwback to swing music, but because it sounds so incredibly contemporary even today. Unlike with even bands on their level such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Squirrel Nut Zippers never really sound retro. “Hell” is brilliant because of a terrific combination of sound and lyrics:
“This is a place where eternally
Fire is applied to the body
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
Then baked into cakes which are passed around.”
Now those lyrics may sound easy enough to sing, but when placed within the context of the music and then topped off with unique singing style of the vocalist they really come alive. Funny thing about “Hell” though; it’s not even the best song on the album. That honor belongs to “Put a Lid On It.” Katherine Whalen is a young white southern girl who sounds like an old black jazz diva. Seriously, it’s hard to reconcile that amazing voice coming out of the girl who is featured in the publicity photos of Squirrel Nut Zippers. Both “Put a Lid on It” and “Prince Nez” highlight Katherine Whalen’s spectacular voice-a voice which is, admittedly, best taken in small doses.
Speaking of “Put a Lid on It” did you know that the Zippers did a remake with Rickie Lee Jones handling the singing entitled “Have You Have Enough”? The lyrics of this versions are directed toward Mr. Bush and his policies of illegal invasion, illegal spying and just generally being criminally incompetent. “Have You Had Enough” is one of the few protest songs by a major act during Vietnam Part II. It is a little disconcerting to hear the music of “Put a Lid On It” playing beneath a strange singer’s plaintive question posed to millions of apathetic dupes, but it also stands as a testament to the power of both the arrangement specifically and the Squirrel Nut Zippers in general.
One really cool thing about Hot and all the Squirrel Nut Zippers CDs is that they come with special enhanced special features that you can play on a CD-ROM drive. One of the first national media outlets to publicize the Squirrel Nut Zippers was National Public Radio and one of the special features on the CD is an interview the Zippers gave to NPR. Special features also include music videos and photo galleries. The Squirrel Nut Zippers also stand as a testament to how the music industry could combat music downloading if they were willing to shed 1% of their profits. I would far rather buy an album like the Zippers offer-with special features-than merely download just the songs. It’s a shame that the weasels who run the music industry would rather whine and disappear than simply keep their Aston Martins for an extra year instead of buying a new one every 365 days.