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Get into the "swing" with Squirrel Nut Zippers on '18's "Beasts of Burgundy"

Southern Broadcasting
The latest album from Squirrel Nut Zippers is "Beasts of Burgundy."
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ALBUM REVIEW: Squirrel Nut Zippers – Beasts of Burgundy (Southern Broadcasting) 2018

I hate to admit that I initially missed the “reunion” of Squirrel Nut Zippers (or is it “revival”?) in 2018, with the release of their New Orleans-centric album Beasts of Burgundy, the Americana musical collective’s first record in 18 years.

But here we are. North Carolina’s Squirrel Nut Zippers are back, albeit without original members Tom Maxwell and Katherine Whalen. But, no matter. Their musical style and embrace of Crescent City weirdness makes this record a must-listen, so many years after their breakthrough album Hot rode the crest of the neo-swing revival that was taking place in 1996 and 1997. Their hit, “Hell,” was particularly bizarre but unforgettable, as was the 30’s jazz-inflected tune “Put a Lid On It.” But the record-buying public saw the group as a fad and a novelty and they struggled to keep things together into the new century.

SNZ's Tom Maxwell taking a bite from a Twinkie in the 1996 video of their hit "Hell." (Mammoth)

But, thankfully, key folks in the band made sure to bring that wild sound - like wax-spirits on a Victrola played at 78 RPM in places, and 16 RPM in others - back to those of us who appreciated Squirrel Nut Zippers from the get-go.

And while Maxwell and Whalen sat out this incarnation of the Zippers, band founder Jimbo Mathus has kept the ship going after all of these years and Beasts of Burgundy, the title a reference to New Orleans’ Burgundy Avenue while also embracing the carnivale of sideshow freaks, geeks and other weirdies that draw a crowd, as they did in those early years of the 20th century, a time period that Squirrel Nut Zippers embracing with every fiber in their musical being. It should be noted that vocalist, guitarist and banjo-playing Mathus (who released a solo record earlier this year titled Incinerator) is originally from Clarksdale, Mississippi, a blues-drenched Delta town where I had my own weird “crossroads” experience during a visit approximately one year ago ("Last train to Clarksdale").

Beginning with the “Conglomeration of Curios,” the “Karnival Joe From Kokomo” with its Nick Cave-honoring mention of a “red right hand” and their “humbug”-ish verse: “Now the people come from both near and far / To see the homunculus in a jar / Ho ho, Karnival Joe from Kokomo.” Who wouldn’t want to see what Karnival Joe is hiding behind the curtain?

The party is just getting started, as we hear on the title track which begins with Mathus’ banjo and Chris Phillips’ tambourine shaking and gives the listener the chills with its Halloweenish vibe. If you think New Orleans is weird on Mardi Gras, go for a visit on Halloween. The locals really get into it and this song captures the spooky spirit of it.

Zippers trombonist Charlie Halloran gets a Cuban/Caribbean flair to “Hey Shango!” a song that begs one to get up out of their chair.

The instrumental “Something Wicked (Pt. 2)” (and "Pt. 1," which is toward the end) reminds me of the Dark Carnival band in Something Wicked This Way Comes, except it is a warm up for the death march to follow. I get what Mathus and crew are trying to do here.

That swing groove so connected with Squirrel Nut Zippers reappears on the fun “West of Zanzibar” that is like a song from a Disney movie, think Aladdin crossed with The Princess and the Frog. I think they should offer their services to the Mouse. Just a thought.

Gypsy Rose Lee gets namedropped on “Use What Mama Gave You,” with Cella Blue taking the lead vocal on this sassy, brassy, burlesque number.

It’s a bummer that Leon Redbone is gone. I know that “Rusty Trombone” was recorded before his death, so I hope he heard it before his passing. He would completely appreciate the band’s commitment to keeping vintage American music alive on Beasts of Burgundy with Dixieland jazz-inspired numbers like this.

Like New Orleans (a city I know pretty well), where much of this album was recorded, the blood, sweat and tears that were shed to create this terrific record come through loud and clear. This is the real deal. Real singers, real voice, real instruments. Real talent. Sorry I was late in coming to Beasts of Burgundy. Better late than never. This is a keeper!

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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