Cabaret Decadence

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Hot
(Mammoth Records)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)

By Tony Bonyata

They're hot. They're hip. And they've stolen their band name from a chewy, peanut-flavored candy bar.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers, a seven-piece jazz band from North Carolina, are being packaged as somewhat of a novelty act. Aimed at the young and even the alternative rock crowd (they have been receiving airplay on MTV's alternative music show "120 Minutes") the Zippers produce a sound which hearkens back more to the days of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway then to the Smashing Pumpkins and Foo Fighters.
Influenced by the hot jazz bands of the 20's and 30's, the bandmember's history is actually more rock oriented. As singer and guitarist Tom Maxwell puts it, "I started listening to this in 1988 when I was playing rock and roll. I picked up Cab Calloway and was blown away. To me, it was rock as much as anything else I heard, except it was a little bit more subtle".
On the Squirrel Nut Zippers sophomoric release Hot, they manage to recreate the unbridled exuberance of early jazz without sounding dated. On the song "Put A Lid On It", co-founding band-member, singer and banjo player Katharine Whalen sings with a sexy, sultry voice that creates the vision of a nightclub siren of the 30's performing in a dark, decadent, smoke-filled cabaret.
A recurring theme on Hot seems to focus on sin, damnation and "Old Scratch" himself. On the latin-flavored "Hell", Maxwell boisterously moans of a place where, "teeth are extruded and bones are ground, and are made into cakes which are passed around", as the horns of Ken Moser and Tom Maxwell swell and break out into heated frenzy. Percussionist Chris Phillips and string bassist Don Raleigh pound out a fierce, sinister rhythm on the devilish "Memphis Exorcism", while Whalen's slinky voice proclaims that "the devils are dreaming of a blue angel" on the twisted dirge "Blue Angel".
Smoking music is not the only thing that makes this disc a great time, it also includes an entertaining interactive CD-ROM (formatted for Windows and Macintosh) that is chock-full of band interviews, live clips, music videos, lyrics and photos.
This swinging jazz on Hot fits perfectly into the current martini sipping, cigar smoking, club-hopping trend that is sweeping the nation by storm. The Squirrel Nut Zippers couldn't make a better houseband for the times.

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