Monday, December 11, 2006

Stop the Presses! The Squirrel Nut Zippers are back!

About 3 months ago I was prepping a post on the ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers chanteuse Katherine Whalen who put out a solo album earlier this year. I got sidetracked and never finished the post, but now there's a damn good reason to revive the post. I just randomly checked out her website and found out that the Zippers will be back and performing a select few dates next year in the southeast US! That is, without key members Ken Mosher & Tom Maxwell, who aplit from the band and tour separately as the aptly named Maxwell/Mosher Band... more on that later. The Squirrel Nut Zippers are one of my favourite bands ever and criminally underrated. They were often lumped in the same group of 90's swing craze bands that included Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, though I think the Squirrel Nut Zippers were vastly superior and whose music was much more multi-dimensional, covering a wide range of musical styles that defied easy categorization. Yet it all went belly up about 5 years ago. Once I was wearing a SNZ shirt at work and a patron was like "Squirrel Nut Zippers, eh? Whatever happened to them?". I didn't know then, and now I kinda know.

Up until recently, I was oblivious to the traumatic series of events that eventually tore the Zippers apart, but I came across this article from this past May that absolutely broke my heart. Go take a read and come back, I'll be waiting... Yikes, one sad part was Whalen was forced to sell her banjo and return to waiting tables (!). No, not the banjo! From the article: "Yeah, I ran out of money, so I sold it," she says. "But that's OK. It's just a banjo. Getting divorced was much more stressful. Much sadder." Whalen was married to fellow member Jimbo Mathus and the band, in fact, grew out of impromptu jam sessions at their home. The Zippers went from playing at Clinton's inauguration and a platinum-selling album to vicious in-fighting and legal action that befits a particularly jam-packed episode of Behind the Music, a fact alluded to by ex-member Tom Maxwell in the article. Another article I just read here, describes the acrimonious period recording the record label contract-induced Christmas album (phoned it in) and "band-not-talking" recording process of the album Perennial Favourites. During that album, the band couldn't even stand being in the same room together so they recorded in little groups or at one point cobbled a guitar solo together out of some half-hearted takes...Yikes! Man, even at their worst, the Squirrel Nut Zippers were unbelievable. It's a testament to the immense talent of the Zippers that amidst the behind-the-scenes hell, they put out a fantastic album chock-full of some of my favourite tracks including the wicked Ghost of Stephen Foster, which features honourary band member Andrew Bird who went on to become a great artist in his own right. It's a shame that all sorts of crap happened to bring down such a great band.

Here's a mish-mash selection of Zippers-related paraphenalia including covers, semi-rare live performances, and tracks from the SNZ family of artists.

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Hell (Springfield remix)
Back in the Napster days, I stumbled on the Squirrel Nut Zippers quite by accident with this remix while searching for Simpsons mp3s. From the "Sauter Sonic Labs", someone cleverly took the Zippers one hit song Hell and mixed in Simpsons quotes about hell and the Devil. After a few listens I started wondering about the underlying song, which was actually quite catchy. As was the case with a lot of crap from Napster, the MP3 was mis-labelled and required some lyric searching to finally find out it was the Zippers. Luckily the ol' Edmonton Public Library was well-equipped to fuel my new-found Zippers obsession, carrying almost all their albums plus spin-offs like Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad, the Jim Mathus Knockdown Society, and Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire. The SNZ continue a strange tendency I have to latch onto a band after they break-up or go on indefinite hiatus, only to resurrect years later (see: Harvey Danger, Presidents of the United States of America, or The Philosopher Kings). I'm still waiting, Moxy Früvous...

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Lover's Lane (Live on Conan O'Brien)
Squirrel Nut Zippers - I've Found a New Baby (live in Munich, Germany)
I really wish I could have seen them live... The long defunct site Passed Out on the Landing (from a SNZ lyric) serves as a handy guide to their side projects, compilation tracks, old/new bands and so on.

Katherine Whalen - Dirty Little Secret
When I was working on the original post, I was going to focus on Katherine Whalen's new-ish solo album Dirty Little Secret. It's a far departure from her days in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but her voice is as hypnotic as ever. Whalen also put out a great album of jazz standards under the title Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad. Seriously, it's great.
Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad - After You've Gone
Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad - Yesterdays

Jim Mathus Knockdown Society - Blues Jumped a Rabbit
Zippers co-founder, Jimbo Mathus branched off into the blues with his solo act The Knockdown Society.

Ben Folds Five - Army
Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher of the Zippers joined the horn section on fellow Chapel Hill artists Ben Folds Five. I've read that the distinctive cackle heard just after Ben sings "My redneck past is nipping at my heels" is none other than Mr. Maxwell himself. After leaving the Zippers, Maxwell would later tour with ex-Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge as The Minor Drag. Ben also did a cameo in the Zipper's music video for Suits are Picking Up the Bill. When I was travelling this summer, I was dumbfounded to find out my room-mate at a hostel in a Salzburg, Austria was from North Carolina. This was the day after my Edmonton Oilers beat the Carolina Hurricanes in game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals (Carolina would ultimately win... grrrrr), and here I was halfway across the globe in a room with this guy. So random! But amazement at the coincidence turned to disbelief as I found out he barely knew they had a hockey team and had only vaguely heard of Ben Folds and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are two of the most prominent acts to come out of his homestate. So much for local pride. Bah to him!

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Under the Sea [originally from Disney's The Little Mermaid]
I posted this last year, but here it is again. I say more bands should do Disney covers. Future post mayhaps?

Asleep at the Wheel featuring Squirrel Nut Zippers - Maiden's Prayer [originally by Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys]
Sorta a old-school country swing song with the always lovely Katherine Whalen on lead vocals.
EDIT (12/13/2006): I was just checking out the liner notes and this is actually Asleep at the Wheel with the Squirrel Nut Zippers as guests.

Maxwell/Mosher - Little Boxes [originally by Malvina Reynolds]
They were announced as one of the artists performing this song for season 2 of Weeds. I'm not sure what happened, but it looks like it was never used. Well, I found it so take a listen.

Andrew Bird & Nora O'Connor - Oh Sister
[originally by Bob Dylan]
Andrew Bird - Case in Point
Semi-regular Zipper, Andrew Bird has the distinction of making my Top 10 most played iTunes tracks twice. I'm eagerly looking forward to his new album next year, tentatively named Armchair Apocrypha. Should be a keeper for sure.

Covers of the SNZ are hard to come by, but here are a couple:
Streetlight Manifesto - Hell (live 2005-04-22 at The Forum, Tunbridge Wells UK)
My-Tea Kind - Blue Angel (live)

Other unexpected SNZ appearances:
Their hit Hell strangely used In a Turkish Rinso(?) commercial on where else? YouTube.

Anyone have a MP3 or video of the Squirrel Nut Zippers on Sesame Street? Apparently they performed a parody of their own Put a Lid on It. You can read about it here, but that's about it...

If you ever wanted to hear Put a Lid on It re-imagined as a political rally for change, go get the MP3 from here. Rickie Lee Jones performs with Maxwell/Mosher.

Some seasonal tunes:
Squirrel Nut Zippers - Santa Claus is Smoking Reefer [originally by Johnny Guarnieri with Slam Stewart]
This hidden track from their EP is actually a cover of a song called Santa's Secret originally recorded in 1944 (!).

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Carolina Christmas
From their holiday album Christmas Caravan, which was forced upon them by the record label and they reluctantly churned out. That doesn't mean it's not good though.

(Pssst... their entire 1998 Christmas album can be snagged here)

If you're not a fan already, I'd seriously consider checking them out. If you're stumped for X-mas gifts, share the Squirrel Nut Zippers with a loved one.


an odd duck said...

In 8th grade (8 and a half years ago), I had a crush on a guy named Adam who sat in front of me in my science class. One day, when he wasn't talking about South Park (his other favorite thing), he said he liked the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
I acted like I knew what he was talking about even though I had no idea who the band was. I did hear some of their music after the fact and liked them.
But your post was a strange flashback for me.

Tara said...

This is great stuff...thanks for feeding my own revival into the Zippers!

Anonymous said...

You are a life saver. I'm back home for the holidays and I'm headed out to do my radio show with some old friends and I didn't have any holiday music on me. Now, I have my favorite holiday record ever to take with me. Thanks!