About a year ago, I saw the Squirrel Nut Zippers play live. I was excited – as their previous albums, particularly the album “Hot” were always a favorite of mine. So of course, when SNZ finally got the band together, I was excited! Of course SNZ did not really get back together – band leader Jimbo Mathus formed mostly a new band. There’s a couple old timers in the mix, but most of the major players of the 90s SNZ have long since gone on their own way. So, while I was excited about the new SNZ. I also prepared myself – this new Squirrel Nut Zippers might suck.
With a new album and a continued tour, the new Squirrel Nut Zippers show no signs of slowing down. Again, I have to be objective with this new rendition of a 90s staple. Are the New Squirrel Nut Zippers really worth the listen? Are they just a novelty band, good to experience once or twice? Is the new band Hot, or are they not?
How are the New Squirrel Nut Zippers in Concert?
Like I said, with exception of Mathus, all the key players of SNZ had since gone their separate ways. There was no Katharine Whalen to sing “Put a Lid on It.” There was no guitars or backing vocals by Tom Maxwell. Simply put – the new Squirrel Nut Zippers are essentially a new band. I still forked up my 35 bucks or so to see this new incarnation of SQZ.
Honestly, I enjoyed the new band. They were loud, brash, and just a ton of fun. The new female vocalist did leave something to be desired. Her voice didn’t quite match Katherine’s parts on some of the old songs, and even on the new songs – she just didn’t quite sound right.. Still, overall the concert was high energy and full of good music. I highly recommend seeing them if you have the opportunity.
That being said, I felt like once is enough. I enjoyed their “reunion” tour, but I don’t know that I would go see them again unless Whalen and Maxwell reunited with their old band.
New Band – New Album
As I said before, the new band put out a new album in 2018. “Beasts of Burgundy” gives us 12 new Squirrel Nut Zipper songs. Fans of bedlam jazz, New Orleans Swing, and the like should certainly check out the album.
The strongest songs, such as “Pay Me Now (Or Pay Me Later),” “Karnival Joe (from Kokomo),” and “Axeman Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa)” all have one major thing in common. All the songs show the combined talents of the band together. “Pay Me Now (Or Pay Me Later),” and “Karnival Joe (from Kokomo),” give us an interesting mixture of vocals, but the vocals are not the stars of the show – they’re merely just players in the larger group. As we hear the trumpets blare, the upright bass, and other assorted instruments mix together, we get the sense that the new Squirrel Nut Zippers truly is a band – and not just a bunch of musicians united around band leader Mathus. Of course, the instrumental song “Axeman Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa” demonstrates this united band even more so.
The Weak Points of “Beasts of Burgundy”
I will say, just as in concert, the weakest link on the “Beasts of Burgundy” seem to be singer Cella Blue. While her vocals are fine, they’re nothing to write home about. The ending song, “Fade.” especially feels a bit lackluster. Maybe that’s a good thing in a band like SNZ though, as they really are a gumbo pot of ingredients. In a band like SQZ, when one singer stands above the rest, we tend not to see what the other musicians can really do. Even in the old band, Catherine’s vocals never overshadowed the rest of the band. So yeah – we can live with this.
Another possible weak point of “Beasts of Burgundy” comes from the lack of morality tales. After all, the original band showed their flare through songs like “Hell” and “The Ghost of Stephen Foster.” These morality tales are the songs we fell in love with when we heard the old band. Who could forget Mathus singing about eternal damnation and Bad Businessmen? Who could forget Maxwell singing about the evils of drunkenness? We all remember Whalen telling us to put a lid on one’s vices. Beasts of Burgundy seems to forget that these types of songs were always the best SNZ songs.
Counterpoint: Beasts of Burgundy serves us gumbo.
Maybe the new SQZ doesn’t really need a bunch of morality tales. One could certainly argue that “Beasts of Burgundy” isn’t the same type of album as the narrative driven “Hot.” The opening track, “Conglomeration of Curio” shows us by both name and content that “Beasts of Burgundy” is all about showing us the capacities and skills of the new Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Again, “Beasts of Burgundy” is a gumbo – a mixture of several ingredients to showcase what the new band can give us. This gumbo works well! The new Squirrel Nut Zippers are (again) a brand new band that inherited a old band’s leader, name, as well as their catalog. The new Squirrel Nut Zippers really does need to showcase their existing talents and not dwell on what the old band used to do. All that to say, the lack of morality tales, at least on Beasts of Burgundy, is not only acceptable, but a good thing.
So are the new Squirrel Nut Zippers hot or not?
If you’re looking for the old SQZ, you won’t find it in the new SQZ. You will hear a few of your old favorites in concert, sure. Still, the new band does not give us the same types of songs we knew from the album “Hot” and “Perennial Favorites.” Something else to note, Andrew Bird does not play a cameo violin for the new band. And as I mentioned before, “Beasts of Burgundy” does not give us a bunch of eery, tongue in cheek morality tales. So in that respect, the new Squirrel Nut Zippers are not Hot or any of their other previous albums.
Having said that – the New Squirrel Nut Zippers gives us a lot of fun songs. These songs will have you tapping your feet, and dancing like never before. These songs will also give you a showcase of interesting sounds and a whole showcase of instruments! If you love neo retro jazz, swing, and the like, you should certainly check out the New Squirrel Nut Zippers. They’re amazing in concert, and their first album leaves you wanting more. The new Squirrel Nut Zippers are indeed hot.