Jimbo Mathus is quoted in press materials for Beasts of Burgundy as saying, “It’s not a reunion, it’s a revival.” That’s probably the first thing to know about the first studio album from Squirrel Nut Zippers in 18 years. Founding members such as Tom Maxwell and Katherine Whalen, nor frequent guest artist Andrew Bird, are not part of this go-around. Beasts of Burgundy consists of the live lineup that came together in 2016 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hot, which Mathus and percussionist/co-founder Chris Phillips thought sounded pretty lively. Does it make a difference? It’s hard to say, as Squirrel Nut Zippers often felt like either a loose musical collective or at least a band with a strong nucleus that could weather significant lineup changes.
Beasts of Burgundy certainly seems to pick right up where 2000’s Bedlam Ballroom left off. “Conglomeration of Curios” opens the album in perfect Tom Waits carnival barker cadence as Mathus invites the listener to step up and see the sword swallower, the snake charmer, the oddities, and curios. The sinister low-key opening quickly blasts forth into the raucous celebration of “Karnival Joe (From Kokomo)”, which — with its “homunculus in a jar” imagery and manic tempo — falls right in step with the best songs in the Zippers catalogue.
Throughout, Beasts of Burgundy shows a deep allegiance to the vibe of New Orleans. Mathus has spent plenty of time exploring the music of the deeper South not just with his own eclectic solo records, but also by producing records by the likes of J.D. Wilkes and Shinyribs (Gourds frontman Kevin Russell’s solo side project). Also, much of the current lineup was recruited from the New Orleans area, so while Squirrel Nut Zippers’ swing revival roots are still evident, Beasts of Burgundy also dips into Cuban influences (“Hey Shango!”), bluesy workouts (“Use What Mama Gave You”), torch songs (“Fade”), and moody instrumentals (the two-parter “Something Wicked”).
There’s no doubt that the band’s musical chops have only improved over its lifetime, but the Zippers’ real saving grace has always been the slightly off-center angle from which they attack their best material. Earlier hits like “Ghost of Stephen Foster” and “Hell” sounded as if one of those old marijuana exploitation films like Reefer Madness had come to life on stage and gone right off the rails, and that same demented and slightly dark vein can be found threading its way through Beasts of Burgundy. In the band’s early days coming out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that sense of irreverence was held against them as some sort of scarlet letter of inauthenticity. Now, though, it’s just one of those things you expect from Squirrel Nut Zippers. It’s safe to say that if the band’s mainstays were dilettantes or musical tourists in this style, they’d have probably moved on by now.
Beasts of Burgundy isn’t perfect. The joke of “Rusty Trombone” gets old pretty quickly, and the album lets its initial burst of energy relax into something much more laid-back as it closes. The two “Something Wicked” instrumentals signal a shift in tone for the record’s second half, but it doesn’t come together as cohesively as the record’s first five songs or so. Still, from beginning to end, there’s plenty here for fans of Squirrel Nut Zippers to like. Some of the faces have changed over the years, and so has some of the sounds, but Beasts of Burgundy holds plenty of what Zippers fans are looking for.