[12 November 2009]
When the Squirrel Nut Zippers emerged from Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the mid-‘90s as the unwilling face of the swing revival, they also found themselves at the center of a debate between fans, who found the band’s take on ‘20s and ‘30s hot jazz to be refreshing, and purists, who considered the Zippers’ music a ham-handed travesty. True, the Squirrel Nut Zippers never had a Django Reinhardt or Stephane Grappelli among their ranks, but those kinds of expectations are a textbook case of setting the bar too high. And that hardly mattered when the group was releasing manic shimmies like “Hell”, “Ghost of Stephen Foster”, and “Put a Lid on It”. The Squirrel Nut Zippers were fun, and many of those songs still hold up.
But it’s surprising to hear that they’re coming back. 2000’s Bedlam Ballroom was the last disc of Zipper originals, and in the wake of interpersonal strife hitting the band, it didn’t seem like too many of the Squirrel Nut Zippers were looking back as they pursued other projects. Ringleader “Jimbo” Mathus released several fun Mississippi blues albums, Katherine Whalen tried her hand at jazz standards and loungey sounds on two solo releases, Stuart Cole has written a travel guide, Je Widenhouse has kept busy with his Firecracker Jazz Band, Chris Phillips has gotten into composing music for television, honorary member Andrew Bird has ascended to quirky indie stardom, and Tom Maxwell released a pair of intriguing solo albums. At this point, you can’t help but wonder if the Squirrel Nut Zippers are suddenly less than the sum of their parts, especially since Maxwell, who wrote a healthy portion of the band’s songs (including their biggest hit, “Hell”), isn’t part of the reunion.
We won’t learn the answer to that question until 2010, when the band’s next studio record might see a release. As a tide-me-over for fans, though—and probably as a reminder that the band is still around—Lost at Sea offers the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a live setting. Recorded at Brooklyn, New York’s Southpaw in 2008, Lost at Sea contains all of the expected Zipper favorites, and it doesn’t sound like the band has lost too many steps. The horns still blare, the guitars still evoke the feel of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the band still offers up ramshackle harmonies in the choruses, and the crowd is obviously into the show. If the whole thing feels a bit unnecessary, though, it’s probably due to the fact that the band takes very few risks on this recording. There are nice, subtle changes, such as a shift from saxophone solo to trumpet solo in “It Ain’t You”, and an enjoyable horn breakdown in “Suits are Pickin’ Up the Bill”, but these are the sorts of things you expect from a live show. Sequencing-wise, the set list evokes the party mood that the band’s music calls for, but right when the set should be at its most frenetic—via the one-two spooky punch of “Hell” and “Ghost of Stephen Foster”—things get a hair sluggish.
The end result is that Lost at Sea is a fun listen, its songs hitting the same spots in your enjoyment center that they always have, but nothing here will prevent you from going to the original studio albums if you want to hear songs like “Danny Diamond” or “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill”. This is the sort of live album that’s a nice souvenir if you’ve been to the show, or a nice approximation of a greatest hits disc. But we don’t learn anything new about the band. And that’s OK—not every live disc needs to make us reevaluate a band. But it does keep the question the air, presumably answered next year with the band’s new studio record, of whether the Squirrel Nut Zippers fold merely represents a comfortable home base for its remaining members, or something that can still inspire unique music.