Though they may be relegated as a footnote in the large swing revival movement that took the nation by storm in the late-‘90s, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit of sympathy for the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. The band, which really is a front for vocalist/lyricist Steve Perry, mixed punk fury with the occasional ska and swing number during their early days bouncing around the local scene in Oregon. Yet when 1997 hit, so did the Daddies. They released a compilation of their swing songs called Zoot Suit Riot: The Swingin’ Hits of …. Its title track took off on radio and video networks (right along with the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s “Jump, Jive An’ Wail”), officially giving an anthem to the swing revival. The track proved so popular that even “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied it (changing it to “Grape Fruit Diet”, obviously).
Unfortunately, the swing revival didn’t last long.
Admittedly, Perry played his cards right. Though the group mixed punk fury with Setzer-styled rockabilly revivalism on 2000’s Soul Caddy, they by and large remained silent after that, perhaps building up anticipation for some great and unexpected return, the tortured musical genius left alone in his corner for the better part of eight years. Unfortunately, this technique doesn’t work when you’re a one-hit wonder. Susquehanna arrives amid little fanfare, and for those elite few who were genuinely anticipating this record, it proves to be more confusing and beguiling than you could possibly imagine.
“Bust Out” is one of the most jumbled, confused, and flat-out overstuffed opening tracks in recent memory. Lo-fi keyboard blips mingle with surf-rock guitar and flamenco string work. A girl group-styled breakdown and a horn section are thrown in for good measure. It’s as if Perry wants to prove that he’s an eclectic master of genres when, in fact, something more straightforward would have easily done the trick. There are even a few glimpses back to the band’s early ska experiments: some merely passable (“Hammerblow”), some absolutely extraordinary (“High and Lo”, one of the catchiest, most immediate moments on the entire disc). The rest of the time, Perry is just tacking multiple genres for the hell of tackling multiple genres: the very Setzer-esque “The Mongoose and the Snake”, the reggae-lite “Blood Orange Sun”, the Talking Heads-styled (!) 80s pop number “Julie Grave” Though none of these are outright awful, the merely decent hooks and lack of overall direction wind up giving this album the feel of a pet project gone wildly off course. (And considering Perry is listed as lyricist, composer, and producer of every track, it’s hard to argue any other explanation.)
Fortunately, it’s not all a buffet of megalomania. “Tom the Lion” is a peppy, almost wistful ska number that breezes through without showing any effort, “Roseanne” exhibits the best use of Spanish guitar on the disc, largely because it’s married to an actual flamenco-imitation number, a nice boon considering the lyrics are mostly trite. “The Good Things” is the kind of innocuous pop song that Perry needs to spend more time writing and less time writing off as “too simple.” The beauty is in its simplicity. Its simple synth line and straightforward melody are gloriously uncomplicated amidst Perry’s too-frequent experiments in multi-tracking.
Yet even with his newfound production prowess, he still doesn’t know how to fully support his plaintive, everyman singing voice. Too often his pipes sound dry and bland amidst the complex surroundings, rarely indulging backup harmonies as if saying to the listener, “it’s my show, now sit back and enjoy.” It’s hard not to feel a bit of smugness emerging from Susquehanna. It’s that very “look-at-me” arrogance that ultimately makes the Daddies’ return a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. No, they will never hit as big as they did with “Zoot Suit Riot”, but the follow-up experiments, if anything, are mildly amusing distractions. Unfortunately, that’s all that they are.