There once was a year called 1996. Hit songs came from bands like La Bouche. Humanity, near the brink of ruin, tottered, deserpate for salvation.
So when SNZ made their mainstream debut with Hot, they were a novel, welcome glimmer in utterly desolate terrain. They spawned a cadre of immitators, which turned their music into something that hardly resembled them. The public took swing classes. The media declared it a big band revival. Squirrel Nut Zippers did well, then disappeared
Now it’s 2000. SNZ have spent a significant amout of time out of the spotlight, and in their absense, they’ve been hard at work at honing their characteristic sound. On Bedlam Ballroom, these squirrelly cats are hopping on bluegrass, popping on classic jazz riffs, wailing their horns, and delivering 40 minutes of fun, fun, fun. There are a few curious twists — the opening of “Bedbugs,” which even after a few listens makes me think I’ve accidentally loaded Paul Oakenfold into my stereo. And ballads like “Bent out of Shape,” or “Hush,” where Katherine Whalen’s Billie-inspired vocals thrive in smoke and sex appeal. And “If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It,” rings with down and dirty jamming and down-home advice. For SNZ enthusiasts, this album brings no no alarms and no surprises. It’s done expertly, without a doubt. It’s also, well, safe.
Safe is fine, but for a band which just a few years ago was the bee in the media bonnet, Bedlam Ballroom will be lucky to land generate even a sputter. They’ve done good, but they’ve not really moved much. For all anyone knows, it could still be 1996, and their signature “Hot Music” right now sounds pretty much like it did then. In all reality, it’s probably better that this album stay in the hands of fetishists. They’ll give it the respect they deserve. And I personally know no less than two people who tried to injure me to get at my advance copy of this album.
Still, the genre they’ve landed themselves in isn’t an evolving one — it’s one that’s better off in the savory Sticks of the South. Too bad for the rest of us, though. Because I’d just die to see a Squirrel Nut Zippers / Nine Inch Nails collaboration.