Although demonstrative Squirrel Nut Zippers co-leader and playfully peculiar frontman Tom Maxwell bolted for solo pastures last summer, the remaining Chapel Hill, N.C., swingers don't sound too sad about his absence on new album Bedlam Ballroom. In fact, while the band's first three records were certified party platters-and crucial in kick-starting the swing revival-this less-hyped fourth album, recorded in Crescent City's Kingsway Studios, is the most raucous bash of 'em all. With the poofy-haired Maxwell, responsible for the Zips' 1996 hit "Hell," off messing around with Chinese opera, fellow standouts Katharine Whalen-she of the Billie Holiday-possessed pipes-and bug-eyed Jim Mathus-half guitar man, half con man-take turns running the 13-track show.
Perhaps because the current state of swing is being dominated by gartered girls! girls! girls! who flirt as well as croon, Whalen has wisely added a little Betty Boop to her Lady Day-and can still shaddup a crowd with her sepia-toned voice. Whalen's campy new blend of innocence and experience turns out to be the perfect sweet-n-sour mixer for Mathus' amped-up whiskey howl. As always, the Zips toss around musical genres like greasy poker chips. Album opener "Bedbugs" struts on a Little Havana dance beat, with zoot-suited werewolf Mathus tucking in the drowsy innocents. "Baby Wants a Diamond Ring" is up-tempo hot jazz with Whalen shaking her hips and batting her eyelashes at the randy horn section. And "Do What?" is a rock-n-soul, call-and-response grinder that James Brown could have busted out at the Apollo.
Leave it to the quirky, off-beat Squirrel Nut Zippers to really start cutting loose now that the swing revival has cooled and the Top 40 spotlight has dimmed.