What might appear to be a case of tone-deafness is actually a clever ruse. In 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s House of Whiteness and a positively ravaged American economy, swing revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers, on the band’s second post-reformation LP, do a cover of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The song – a Milton Ager/Jack Yellen tune penned in ’29 and popularized during the Great Depression – became an FDR and Democratic Party favorite and is wonderfully counterintuitive about the world laid bare at its feet, the circumstances that surround it. In the age of an American pandemic and an election year, to boot, it oddly enough fits. But the appearance of the song is dramatically at odds with much of the record, which sees the group going through the motions but not reaching for anything extraordinary or even all that out of the ordinary. The Zippers’ last LP, 2018’s Beasts of Burgundy, showed potential, if a flair for familiar turf and formats. The new record, while it has some interesting moments to it, is a whole darned lot of nothing new; for a band that once sounded deliciously out of step with the times, they know sound alarmingly and blandly in step with what is expected of their shtick.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Lost Songs of Doc Souchon. But there’s nothing really all that right about it, either. The record opens with “Animule Ball,” boilerplate Zippers with the tuba keeping bass-time and the horns adding fluorescent color. But frontman “Jimbo” Mathus’ statement that the new record would pull on some kind of a “hidden thread” of NOLA influences seems precariously overblown even from the get-go. The semi-raucous “She’s Ballin’” scratches the same itch as a Squirrel Nut Zippers staple like “Suits Are Picking Up The Bill” but lacks some of the requisite recklessness. Even the lead vocal feels a little staid. In short, there’s nothing here as remotely as invigorating as “Hell,” which was released a lifetime and a half ago.
Mathus finds an odd redemption with “Train on Fire,” a somber little blues nugget driven by banjo and strings that’s a welcome addition to an already familiar mix. But there’s little else in this regard on the LP, with the song following it, the saccharine piano ballad “Mr. Wonderful” sounding so oddly canned listeners will be waiting for the knowing inside wink. (They don’t get it. The song is a Richard Cheese outtake, a throwaway.)
The second half of the record isn’t much better. The band roils on the canonic “Purim Nigrum” (the Andrew Bird of Oh, The Grandeur might be proud here) and the band’s take on New Orleans Willie Jackson’s “Cookie” hints at a bit of booziness, a bit of seediness but doesn’t do enough to fully embrace it. Then, there’s “Happy Days,” which is delivered with some verve, and a dour-faced cover of Stephen Foster’s dated “Summer Longings,” which inexplicably closes the LP.
Squirrel Nut Zippers once offered a potent mix of 30’s swing, gypsy rites and klezmer with an oddly anti-authoritarian bent. And, for a spell during the mid-90s swing moment, they had all eyes on them. Though the fan in some will relish new material and cheer Mathus and others on as they continue their jazzy sojourn, it’s uninspiring to hear a record like Doc Souchon and think of the ways things could be. On the new record, the Squirrel Nut Zippers sound as safe as white paint in a flipped house. And that, in this age of the downtrodden and the dramatic and the bizarre, just don’t fit the bill. — Justin Vellucci, unpublished