Mammoth Records, 1997
REVIEW BY: Alicia St. Rose
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/04/2000
I don't profess to be a connoisseur of jazz. Far from it. So why should I even attempt to review Hot by the Squirrel Nut Zippers? Well, I'll tell ya. It's because I love the album and millions of fans love the album and a large portion of them don't know a stitch about jazz either!
There is a magical allure to SNZ: A group of twentysomethings from various local alternative bands thrown together in a huge farmhouse in North Carolina and later emerging with a Prohibition Era Jazz sound so authentic you'd think that they'd tripped in a Time Machine.
When Hot came out in 1996, it joined the crowd of retro swing bands which had their young audience hoppin' and boppin' to their grandparents' music. Bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin' Daddies tapped into the Swing Revival and helped accelerate it's ascent. These acts were fun and lively, but there was always the air of novelty about them. Hot, on the other hand, emanates sounds that are meatier and a bit more authentic.
What Squirrel Nut Zippers are dishing up is a jazz style made popular around the 1920's and 1930's. Known as Hot Jazz, it has its origins in New Orleans. Someone did their homework because this album simply effervesces with that vintage jazz sound. Hot, with its low key production, has an intimate feeling. It almost sounds live without the distraction of crowd noise.
The album highlight is undoubtably "Hell". It is impossible to sit still during this calypso spiced song. With its attack of fiery horns and just plain wicked xylophone playing, this song was a refreshing delight on the airwaves in '97.
Vocalist Katherine Whalen gives it all she's got on "Put A Lid On It". And she lays it on sweet and subtle in the enchanting "Meant To Be". There are parts of "Prince Nez", however, where she seems to work her voice to the breaking point. But it's still a great vintage duet.
There are some mean swingin' instrumentals that could get the dance floor hoppin' at any venue, especially the steaming "Memphis Exorcism". This is certainly one batch of talented musicians who do complete justice to hot jazz with every note offered. Whalen's banjo picking is remarkable since she is relatively a newcomer to the instrument. The horns (Tom Maxwell, Ken Mosher and Stacy Guess) have the tight yet lackadaisical air of a veteran jazz band. Chris Phillips drumming goes from subtle to absolutely primal. James Mathus (guitar, piano) and Maxwell share vocal duties and do a splendid job.
You don't have to be a jazz genius to appreciate this gem of an album. You might even be tempted to go further and seek out the original musicians of the hot jazz era. Just let the Squirrel Nut Zippers lead the way.