JamBase.com says that L.A.’s KROQ aired the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ 1996 single “Hell,” a giddy calypso thing with Sunday-school overtones, as a joke. But “Hell” became a hit. “Now the d and the a and the m/ And the n and the a/ And the t and the i-o-n/ Lost your face, lose your name/ Then get fitted for a suit of flame.” In a year’s time, the album from which “Hell” came (Hot) would sell over a million copies, and for a moment, the Zippers, a North Carolina band, seemed on the road to fame.
You may recall that the year 1996 was part of the swing-revival era, and jump-blues groups were as plentiful as tats on a greaser. Bands such as the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy fanned some mighty flames, but by the end of the decade swing went away, and so did the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Think of the Zippers as a creative hurdy-gurdy band, and you won’t be disappointed by their lack of individual devotion to musicianship. Sloppy, a little, but who cares? They’re good enough for the task at hand, which resembles a cartoon soundtrack from the 1930s — minus the cartoon. Their sound is parted out from remnants of Cab Calloway, primitive blues from the Delta, Gypsy jazz, and klezmer, making the Zippers far more interesting than their peers. Formed by the husband-wife team of Katharine Whalen and James Mathus as an art project in 1993, they were making Arcade Fire-ish noises a decade before that band came to fame. Reunited in 2007, the Zippers are at present touring a new CD, their first in almost a decade. Lost at Sea swings, yes, but have the Zippers finally become a swing-tribute band? No. That’s not the point.
SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS: Anthology, Saturday, January 2, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. 619-595-0300. $19, $27.