Review: Squirrel Nut Zippers – Hot (1997)

Squirrel Nut Zippers’s album, Hot, which was released in 1997, brought about much success to the band that was not conceived to come true. Similar to their previous album, The Inevitable, the Zippers come back with a postmodern, big band sound. Unlike their contemporaries, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Avenue and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, they deliver a raw and humorous set of songs that reminisce of the jump blues and swing era of the 1930s and 1940s without over producing their music. The Zippers do not easily fall under the genre of Swing-Revival of the mid 1990s, which brings back the sounds that made Louis Prima popular. Hot showcases a mixture of various influences including Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Tom Waits and Delta Blues music.

The album kicks off with “Got My Own Thing Now”, which sounds as if it was pulled out from a swing record collection from the 1940s. This fun, jumpy ditty hooks the listener and gives a reason why they should listen to this album and start swinging. The next track introduces Katharine Whalen on “Put A Lid On It”. This catchy tune creeps in with a call and response between Ms. Whalen and the rest of the band with its waling muted trumpet. The Zippers come back on their feet with the raunchy instrumental, “Memphis Exorcism”. Next up, Tom Maxwell and Ms. Whalen give a sweet, slow dance tune that floats above Ken Mosher’s soft, rhythmic saxophone and James Mathus’s jazzy guitar riffs in “Twilight”. “It Ain’t You” breaks into a dark disposition, which embodies elements of rockabilly.

The Zippers return to their humorous lyrics with “Prince Nez”, a song about a torn relationship over this so called Prince Nez. However, its upbeat swing revives this tune from any apprehension. Mr. Mathus starts off with the infamous guitar riff for “Hell”, the gem that gave Hot its platinum status. This swing, gypsy tinged piece is concerned with the suffering one experiences in hell where “fire is applied to body” no matter how much fame or fortune you have. Then comes “Meant To Be”, the most enamoring and tranquil song on the whole album. Andrew Bird gives a beautiful opening with glissando on his violin, before Katharine Whalen begins her melodic singing about her love for someone. Her voice here displays a similar tone to that of Billie Holiday. “Bad Business Man” starts off with a familiar guitar riff and declares the damnation of a businessman practicing “bad” ethics. The Zippers jump into another entertaining, instrumental tune with “Flight of the Passing Fancy”. “Blue Angel” is another track with vocals by Ms. Whalen. This song is definitely dominated with the atmosphere of Romani music, which is especially evident in Andrew Bird’s usual enigmatic glissando. The last track and closure to Hot, “The Interlocutor”, seems highly influenced by Django Reinhardt’s gypsy riffs.

Though the Swing-Revival era of the late 1990s did not last for too long, there was nevertheless a great set of music from new swing bands. Retro swing was becoming very popular during this time and as a result, several films showcased this new found love for swing music such 1993’s The Mask and 1996’s Swingers. The Squirrel Nut Zippers themselves have contributed their music in films including 1997’s Dream With The Fishes and 1999’s Blast From The Past. Although this era in music was short-lived and almost forgotten, bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Hepcat helped break neo-swing into mainstream.

The Zippers have various layers in their music, as well as within the band itself. They were one of the only neo-swing bands that kept the sound of classic swing without employing over production on their songs and keeping everything pure. The original line up of the Zippers later return with what they do best with the release of three more full-length albums: Sold Out, Perennial Favorites and Christmas Caravan. With their rise of potential to become big, their greatness only lasted until 1998, when primary song writers Ken Mosher and Tom Maxwell departed the band to pursue their own music endeavors. Hot remains to be their most essential and staple album. It demonstrates the band’s fearless energy and interest in exploring new and different grounds.