With their most current album, Perennial Favorites, the Squirrel Nut Zippers have given us a chance to listen and to realize how incredibly exciting the music of the ’30 and ’40 were. The new album again brings us to an important page in music history, representing music styles from the New Orleans ’20 to the later Kansas City big band style of the ’30s and ’40s. Similar to their first two accomplishments, Perennial Favorites does not disappoint the listener.
The album starts off with a Dixieland tune with New Orleans instrumentation and an added banjo sounding much like Johnny St. Cyr playing with Armstrong’s Hot Five. The lyrics tell of the typical drinking and fashion found at the roaring parties of the earlier decade. Jim Mathus clumsily sings the “Suits are Picking Up the Bill.” The banjo that dares your foot to tap is played by the multi-talented Katherine Whalen who takes over the vocals in the second song and stuns you with a voice that sounds just like Billie Holiday’s. As if the voice wasn’t enough, she sings of the mistreatment from her “Low Down Man,” which cries Lady Day. Strangely, the country music with steel guitar in the background tries its best to change the song into one of Patsy Cline’s.
The record then takes a dramatic turn into a blazing dance tempo as the punches from the big band style roll in. “Ghost of Stephen Foster” shows what would have been if Jimmy Lunceford had been Russian. The melody’s derived from the Far East and won’t allow you to sit. The loud, Kansas City shouting style of Mathus wails until the ending in which it quiets to a sweet sound for “Pallin’ with Al.” He sings a soft, danceable ditty over his own sharp guitar notes as if he were Charlie Christian himself. Dan Raleigh plays a swinging, walking bass that adds rhythm you can snap a finger to. The band goes into solos of a violin and a muted trumpet until the shout chorus takes over the ending.
The dancing goes on with a strong horn section during “Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter,” with the Whalen’s gorgeous voice mixing with Mathus’ over Rich Lassiter’s rapid plucking on the upright bass. Like so many of the Zipper’s songs, the shout chorus is found toward the end adding blasting pops. “Trou Macacq” leaves you heaving for breath as the fast pace horn section plays another catchy Russian soli and breaks into yet another final shout chorus. One can only race to the Victrola to flip the vinyl after enjoying the first side of endless theme songs.
The second side starts off with a swingy waltz tattered with depressing lyrics of loneliness and unhappiness. It is sung by Whalen (who else?) over a New Orleans marching drum beat. “Soon” and “Evening at Lafitte’s” bring back the dancing as the call and response from the trumpet and the band seem to ask if you are ready to swing. This show tune has Whalen singing at a quicker pace, but sounding just as impressive and innocent.
“The Kraken” is a strange tune similar to “Air Mail Special” by the Benny Goodman Sextet that may just leave the listener asking for more. The song lacks the great vocals of Whalen and Mathus, which may seem a waste of space for most listeners. However, the very last few lines consist of the angelic voice of Katherine hauntingly singing over Emily Laurence’s equally alluring harp.
The final two songs represent the Birth City of jazz. “That Fascinating Thing” is a delicious second line style song with a stumbling New Orleans horn section. The vision of an early brass band marching down Bourbon Street is vivid as Mathus slurringly sings about a wondrous girl. At one instance, the horns change with no notice into a powerful, uplifting tune that is both marchable and danceable. The transition between the two songs is an unfortunate scattering of noise by various instruments that resembles the horrid “Two Virgins” album by John and Yoko. The final song is properly titled, “It’s Over,” and is played as a bluesier dirge symbolizing the end of an almost great jazz album.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers may not be extremely original, but their talent shines as they share the most popular era in jazz history. They did attempt to become more experimental with the current album, which may prove that one should not try to improve legendary music of the past. Perennial Favorites has however become another impressive jazz album from the North Carolina band.
Written by Nolan Shigley.