Book Awards E-MAIL US

Andrew Bird's
Bowl of Fire



Kevin O'Donnell's
Quality Six
Heretic Blues



Squirrel Nut Zippers



Squirrel Nut Zippers
The Inevitable



Suirrel Nut Zippers
Perennial Favorites



Katharine Whalen's
Jazz Squad




Are the Squirrel Nut Zipper Leaving the Nest?

So the retro movement's finally reached back past Fifties kitsch and found something new: swing. And with pop-culture's inimitable way with labels, it's even given it a name: neo-swing. It might be unpleasant to consider how vital a thirty-second Gap commercial might have been for solidifying the revival, but hey: at least it's here.

The only problem: some of the neo-swing stuff isn't really swing. Or rather, it isn't merely swing. Or, to borrow another term, big band. The best 'neo-swing' band to emerge so far—the Squirrel Nut Zippers—certainly doesn't sound like the smooth, sophisticated stuff made famous by big band leaders like Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. Or Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman. Or Fletcher Henderson. Or Duke Ellington.

Big band or swing: whatever you want to call that brassy, danceable music from the Thirties and Forties, it doesn't begin to cover the stuff the Squirrel Nut Zippers rip through.

So we need to widen our terminology a bit here: swing...big band...postmodern.

Don't be frightened, kids. It won't bite—at least not hard.


'Postmodern' is one of those words people drop into conversation after a slight, uncertain hesitation because—I think—nobody knows what the hell it means, precisely. Used as a pejorative, it's a workable substitute for 'pastiche'—the irritating tendency to offer a hodge-podge of others' styles rather than pursuing your own. In architecture, postmodernism gives us buildings with Roman arches and Spanish towers—or Gothic facades with Mies van der Rohe sheets of glass for windows. It's a style without period because its history is so diverse—and thus history-less.

In music, it means—again, I think—that we get 'neo-swing' bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers that offer us a hodge-podge collection of musical styles from various periods. On one track, they're an early New Orleans jazz combo in a mad-cap free-for-all. In the next track, they're a house tango band.

If they're good at mimicry—and the Squirrel Nut Zippers are very good—the effect can be mesmerizing. Such diverse postmodern appropriation ('theft' in older dictionaries) implies uncontainable creativity—these guys are literally so creative they can't narrow it down to a single genre.

The risk, though, is that the whole thing will come off sounding like a sampler: which Zippers group do you actually like? The crazy Cab Calloway stuff? You probably won't like track two, then. Like the klezmer sound? Skip track eleven.

At heart, naysayers might begin to wonder if there really is one band behind it all.

Or why—if there is one band—does the CD get stuck in the 'pop-rock' bin at the record store. Rock, it seems, is the one thing the Squirrel Nut Zippers don't cover.


But there's another pitfall for the Zippers, and it's much more troubling in the short-term. By naming themselves (as good postmodernists) after a pre-existing pop-culture product—a trademarked candy—they've gotten themselves in a pickle. As of May 23rd, the Squirrel Brand Corporation's new owner (Southern Style Nuts) is suing the Zippers for the use of its name. Of course, you'd think they'd want the free promotion—you could even order the candy off the official Squirrel Nut Zippers web site, before the brouhaha—but that's where it stands.

Worse: according to Ken Mosher (one of the Zippers' sax players), as of May 21st, "Mammoth Records, who contractually agreed to support the band in defense of the Squirrel Brand Corporation lawsuit, has now stopped paying their legal bills, and therefore withdrawn their legal support of the band."

Odysseus, trying to make his way back to Ithaca after the Trojan War, couldn't have felt much worse when he came upon Scylla and Charybdis, bubbling and swirling and smashing rocks and just daring him to skirt between the two.

He, after all, didn't have a lucrative musical career ahead of him. Trojan successes lay behind him, and, as Tennyson pointed out, he had nothing to look forward to but his family and "a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me." The Zippers, with a handful of albums under their belt—each one outselling the last—have their glorious moments ahead of them.

Or will, if the brouhaha blows over.


Signs aren't good, though. Recently, the band canceled its tour dates for the fall. And briefly in April, the name of the official web site (run by Mosher) was changed to 'The Squirrel Not Zippers'—whether it was simply a gesture of frustration or an Odyssean stab at Skylla and Charybdis isn't clear.

Katherine Whalen, the Zippers' lead vocalist, recently said in an interview that the band is now concentrating on producing another album, though.

In the meantime, a few of the band members are releasing their own CDs, with fellow Zippers performing as guests. James Mathus, the Zippers' co-founder (and Whalen's husband), has recorded his second CD as Jas. Mathus and His Knockdown Society; it's slated for a spring release. The Zippers' violinist, Andrew Bird, has recorded a new album with his band, Bowl of Fire, and it's set to be released later this summer (it's the band's second CD). He also appears as violinist and lead vocalist on the new Kevin O'Donnell's Quality Six release, Heretic Blues. (Actually, it's the same band as Bowl of Fire, plus two horn players, but O'Donnell leads it rather than Bird; hence the name change, I suppose). And Whalen herself has a new solo release (Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad) that hit stores May 25th.


Long-term, Andrew Bird is probably the guy to watch. Although he's not officially a Zipper, he's played with the band since their first big success—Hot—and he has toured with them extensively. Like the Zippers, his music is wonderfully eclectic. On his Bowl of Fire CD from last year (Thrills), he moved from early jazz to Bertolt Brecht to Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt to Robert Johnson and closed with a couple beautiful country blues tunes.


Consider: as a bonus, he adapted a Heinrich Heine poem and even sang one verse in German. (Side notes: Robert Schumann used the poem as well in his Dichterliebe song cycle; Whalen sings harmony in Bird's adaptation.) Lyrics from another track ("A Woman's Life and Love," sung by Whalen) were drawn from another German poem. And if that's not enough to convince you this twenty-five-year-old wunderkind's an itinerate postmodernist, he even ended the opening track with a passage from Bach's Partita in D Minor for unaccompanied violin.

Bird is a stunningly talented musician. Where Grapelli—jazz's perennial favorite violinist—is heavy-handed and plodding, Bird is stunningly delicate and brilliantly gentle. While the cabaret elements on Thrills can be a bit dark and aggressive (Bird sometimes sounds like someone reading a Christopher Isherwood novel aloud after drinking too many absinthes), he can turn the mood quite suddenly and beautifully into a gentle, lush respite. In general, he's certainly more introspective than the Zippers would ever be.

And with a music degree from Northwestern University (he now teaches at the Institute for Early Music), he's remarkably knowledgeable and accurate in reproducing period-appropriate sound. (Thrills, for example, was recorded with a single microphone, just as music was captured in the infancy of the recording era.) So while he moves back and forth across a wide scope of musical styles, he's certainly not guilty of offering watered-down pastiche.

Now, having said that, I should quickly add that Bird's work on Heretic Blues is quite different from his Thrills. Or rather, while Bird puts in the same often delicate and beautiful performances on violin, the music behind and around him is from another era altogether.

Specifically, instead of the free-for-all Thirties and earlier, think of sophisticated, meticulous bepop and cool jazz of the Fifties—and even some early Stan Getz in a few passages. At times, frankly, Bird's style of playing (and choice of instrument) seems out of place. Plus, while Bird wrote most of his own material for Thrills, O'Donnell wrote most of the songs on Heretic Blues, and the lyrics don't begin to offer the depth or darkness Bird's have.

If you like the Zippers for their wide-ranging styles and loose performances, you'll probably prefer Thrills over Heretic Blues—but look later this summer for news about Bird's second Bowl of Fire release.


A similar pattern holds true for Katherine Whalen's new Jazz Squad. In a departure from her
Zippers work, Whalen offers a much more consistent, if less ambitious take on a narrow field—small-combo jazz of the sort Billie Holiday was producing with Columbia in the 1930s and 40s. Whalen can certainly stretch out a melody and add world-weary yet vibrant flourishes like Holiday, and rather than downplay the references, she actually takes on several Holiday standards for the new release. And with the references come the naysayers' cries of mere mimicry.

To which one can only say: let them cry.

This is a beautiful album. The pace is mostly slow, as befits the Holiday references, but at times Whalen sings a little higher, a little more exuberantly, and the effect shifts strangely from Billie Holiday to Blossom Dearie. But it's a lovely, careful performance throughout, and the only element that would be out of place on a Holiday Verve recording is the occasional banjo performance from James Mathus (who also plays guitar on the album). It's a welcome anachronism, though, bringing a touch of early New Orleans jazz to the mix.

One of the best tracks is a wonderful version of "After You've Gone." Though it starts out slowly, Whalen manages a wonderfully decadent, even exuberant take on the word 'gone,' signaling the song's tempo change at the first repeat. It's a shimmering performance, with particularly nice clarinet playing by Mike Minguez. (Side note: the Zippers sorely need a clarinet player for their klezmer-influenced songs, and Minguez would be wonderful.) Other noteworthy tracks include a fast, swinging "Sugar," which sports a great New Orleans banjo and some nice horn work, and "All My Life," which stands out for Cecil Johnson's soulful, Ben Webster-style sax work and Whalen's superbly inventive approach to the melody.

This is, in short, a wonderful jazz release.

Still, that loose, zany, wide-ranging, postmodern fun the Zippers offer is sorely missed. We can only hope, I suppose, that their legal woes don't last as long as the Trojan War.

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted June 1, 1999





Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.