Perennial Favorites, Indeed – Squirrel Nut Zippers

[l1]N[/l1]ot to be confused with the candy of the same name, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are probably even nuttier. If you like jazz or just appreciate fine musicianship, you’ll enjoy their third album, “Perennial Favorites.” As with many avant garde bands, they can be a little uneven or hard to understand at times, but for the most part, the album delivers on its ambitious title. As a general rule, the lyrics are just as important as the music, so pay close attention.

  • [az]B000009PNN[/az]”Suits are Picking Up the Bill” – Who wouldn’t love to tag along on somebody else’s spending spree? From the first cheerful grunts of Ken Mosher’s baritone sax and Andrew Bird’s scratchy scraping fiddle, it’s just plain silly, and just plain fun. Fun, with a very tight, snappy horn section featuring Je Widenhouse on cornet, and Kathleen Whalen’s well-handled tenor banjo. Jim Mathus is a great jazz singer, expanding (or maybe ignoring) the boundaries of normal pop melodies for his vocal line.
  • “Low Down Man” – Slow, sad, torch song. Kathleen Whalen . . . brrrrrrrr; what a voice. I can just hear Patsy Cline covering this . . .
  • “Ghost of Stephen Foster” – Makes me dance. No, really. It does. Klezmer is such joyous music. So full of bizarre images I just can’t keep up with them all. “If we were made of cellophane we’d all get stinking drunk much faster.” Fit that line into your average pop tune. For that matter, feature any portion of ‘Camptown Ladies’ in any tune. The kids and I have a contest to see who can hear the first clang of the bell, as the piano of “Low Down Man” fades.
  • “Pallin’ with Al” – Suddenly, the Squirrels are almost traditional. Great swing tune. So much fun; love the guitar, but the fiddle’s never far behind. “Alright, go tell Al you love him!”
  • “Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter” – I can’t help but picture Peggy Lee singing “He’s A Tramp”, but I just prefer Kathleen Whalen. Machine gun drumming, flying acoustic bass, tight snappy rhythym.
  • “Trou Macacq” – Brasil! Another very dancy bit, about the not-very-dancy concepts of evolution and the deterioration of the human condition. ” . . . ride the pine-box derby to the finish line . . .”
  • “My Drag” – If Bessie Smith had been born in Czechoslovakia, she would have recorded this. Once again, what should sound bizarre is instead stimulating and evocative.
  • “Soon” – This is far enough out there that it makes “My Drag” seem normal. Give it a few listens; it grows on you. The lyrics are especially fun —
    “I have a dream where snowflakes fall inside a painted hall . . . Hah! That don’t pay the rent! But if you draw a bow, draw the strongest, and if you use an arrow, use the longest!”

    I didn’t say they made sense, just that they were fun.

  • “Evening at Lafitte’s” – More great swing. So nice to listen to Kathleen Whalen once more. Almost traditional, except at the beginning where she sings the line about “a kind of creepy feeling is stealing over me.” I’m not sure that was intentional, if you listen to how it’s worded on the second go ’round. Beautiful. “It’s great for dancing, and romancing . . . that’s the place you and me should go if we were lovers stealing an evening at Lafitte’s.”
  • “The Kraken” – Okay, now it’s downright strange. Reminds me of Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out”, the track where everyone in the band tried to demolish all the rented percussion equipment. After 18 listens, it’s a little less strange. A little. The closing minute, though, is more lilting Kathleen, totally detached from the previous cacophony.
  • “That Fascinating Thing” – Blowsy horns, drums, and banjo; a strip tease, pure and simple. Switches to double-time in the middle. The Squirrels are still enjoying themselves. So am I.
  • “It’s Over” – Really really really strange. I just don’t get it.

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