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Hot by Squirrel Nut Zippers (1996)

I was given my copy of the Squirrel Nut Zippers album Hot by my stepfather back in the late 1990s, a year or two after it was released. I guess he figured that I could relate to the band's eccentric, ebullient and unabashedly retro sound. And by retro, I'm not talking about the 1960s or the 1950s. No, let's go back considerably further to the good old days of swing-era music, prohibition-era hooch and Tin Pan Alley jazz. Now that's what I'm talking about.

Fellas, slip on your seersucker suit, top it off with your gray fedora hat, and light up your Cuban cigar, and gals, do your best to look like Greta Garbo or Lauren Bacall, fasten your cigarette on the end of a foot-long holder, and blow smoke at your beau through your fishnet veil. Both of you should leisurely lean back in the plush velvet chairs in the Leopard Lounge, which you arrive at after descending below street level on a grimy flight of dimly-lit stairs. We're going to listen to the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Folks, if ever there was an album loaded with I-could-care-less-what-the-usual-crowd-thinks attitude, this is most definitely it. The Squirrel Nut Zippers did it their way, without even the slightest hint of heavily distorted electric guitar solos. It just goes to show you that you don't have to be ear-splittingly loud to rock the house off its foundations.

It's a little-known fact that Grandma and Grandpa really knew how to party when they wanted to, and Hot reminds us of this oft unrecognized truth in a not-so-subtle way. Much of the album has a decidedly raucous tone, but also features a few tender and sentimental pieces as well. Overall, I'd say it would be the ideal choice for playing at a party filled with friends who have a good sense of humor and reasonably refined tastes. You could serve everyone Schnapps with imported Swiss cheese and crackers, along with some other light hors d'oeuvres, like those green olives with the red stuff in the middle and a toothpick stuck through them, and those little sandwich slices without the crusts and some mushy tuna with mayo stuff inside. Everyone would think that you were pretty classy, perhaps.

One thing that I particularly like about the Squirrel Nut Zippers is that the group was started in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I think that fact alone says a lot for the authenticity of their sound, which often features vocals with a lazy southern drawl and Delta-blues-style guitar playing.

Still, it is nonetheless neo-retro music in a lot of ways. The quality of the recordings is quite good, with none of the scratchy, tinny sound common to so many of the old LPs that served as inspiration for Hot. Also, the arrangements demonstrate a lot of modern pop sensibility, since they tend to be rather hook-laden and brief. So, probably the best way to describe the band's sound is by saying that they pour elements of an older style into the sensibilities of a more contemporary format. However you want to classify it, I would say that it works quite well for them.

The band had some limited commercial success with the album's hit song "Hell," but beyond that they didn't seem to catch the national spotlight all that much. They broke up and ceased to exist for several years before finally reuniting recently, and have played a few shows since then.

Right before their separation in the late 1990s, I saw them perform live at a mid-sized concert hall at a university, and it was an experience I'll never forget. They rigorously avoided playing their songs exactly as they were recorded on the album, as if it would have simply been too boring and unchallenging for them to do so. I wish that I had a recorded performance of that show, because to me that would have been an interesting alternative version to Hot. Who knows, maybe someone out there has a high-quality bootleg of it. It was a great show, filled with energy, passion and fun.

The whole album is a strong offering, and since in large part I consider it to be lighthearted ambience music, I can usually just put it on and let it play all the way through while I do something else, like read a magazine, or whatever. Notwithstanding, I'll comment on the tracks that most get my attention:

"Got My Own Thing Now"
I think that they made the right decision by starting off the album with this track. The title of the song pretty much says it all. The band has decided to take an unusual and unexpected ride way back into the past, and nobody is going to stop them. The lyrics to the track express well the sentiment behind the band's unusual vibe: "I used to walk along with the rest / now I've got something all my own / now you've got a little something new / broke away somehow / that's why I'm swinging it / I've got my own thing now." All the essential aspects of their original throwback style are in this piece -- the horns, the clean guitar, the jazzy vocals, and the swinging drums.

"Put a Lid on It"
I like this one because of the undercurrent of threat that pervades it, and the catchy sax melody that underscores such sentiment. The clever use of clichés and rhymes in the lyrics combined with the adept counterpoint between backing and lead vocals makes the tune kind of humorous in spite of the facetiously implied violence in its message.

"Memphis Exorcism"
Maybe it is possible to like a song largely because of its title. This might be one of those cases. When I listen to this track, which features a thunderous horn section, frenetic stand-up bass, too-cool-for-school guitar, and hold-on-to-your-hat jazz drums, I imagine walking into some freak-out Pentecostal church in downtown Memphis many decades ago, where some wild-eyed preacher with slicked-back oily hair has three venomous snakes in his left hand, and is using his right hand for baptismally dunking the head of a born-again soul into a tin tub filled with water. Elvis was probably sitting in the back row with his eyes closed, swaying back and forth.

This song wasn't a minor hit for no reason. The lyrics are just too hilarious. Speaking as if he were warning the damned of the fundamentalist hell that awaits them, the singer delivers a sermon designed to scare your sinful nature right out of you, provided that you can stop laughing so hard for awhile. There is a ridiculous incongruity between the song's grim message and its undeniably party-time groove, characterized by an infectious calypso beat. The Squirrel Nut Zippers have recorded a lot of good material, but unless they can eventually come up with something to equal "Hell," this song should be the one that will continue to define the band.

"Bad Businessman"
I like this tune because of the relative indecipherability of the lyrics as well as for the catchy main riff. What exactly is the bad businessman? A drug dealer? A bootlegger? A pimp? It's hard to tell, because the lyrics are nothing more than an endless stream of cleverly chosen and expertly rhymed yet deliberately vague clichés. I suppose you can just use your imagination and fill in the blanks yourself.

Okay, it's recommendation time. If you are open to unusual neo-retro music, go ahead and give Hot a shot. If you'd rather stick with classic rock, this is not for you. And if you're a fundamentalist Christian and are wondering if the lyrics to "Hell" are tongue-in-cheek, the answer is no, so feel free to play it at your church service this coming Sunday.

Reviewed by Somebody Else 3/1/12

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