REVIEW: Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Beasts of Burgundy” is Melting Pot of Frolicking Influences


One of the things that makes Americana music rich with quality as a genre is the inclusion of many traditions and styles within its definitions. While we all love the Southern, and the twangy, and the Nashville sound when it’s good, there’s something to be said for the funky, the quality rock ‘n roll, the good songwriting that the rich melting-pot of American musical influences has wrought.

Which brings us to the Squirrel Nut Zippers as a case in point. Their recent release Beasts of Burgundy (Southern Broadcasting) displays a uniquely American gumbo of influence, in its amalgamation of New Orleans style, with swinging horn players complete with Congo Square rhythms, carnival storytelling, with the whole show headed by a blues guitar virtuoso, a sidekick genius fiddle player who studied in Romania, a burlesque singer, and to top it off, all of this on an album that was mixed in New York City.

The album is meant to be a cohesive experience, and their recent run of shows emphasized this [to read about one of their recent shows, click one of these bolded words right here.] “Conglomeration of Curios” opens the album, setting the stage welcoming one and all to the sideshow that is about to unfold. Squirrel Nut Zippers frontman Jimbo Mathus plays the part of eerie, shady carney flawlessly. [To read our earlier interview of Jimbo Mathus, click any of these bolded words right here.]

The album goes through the full-on New Orleans swing jamboree “Karnival Joe (from Kokomo), with its lively musical unfoldings, and then “Pay Me Now (or Pay Me Later)” opens with muted horns and is more baudy with Cella Blue singing. Title track “Beasts of Burgundy” is a spoof on New Orleans’ creepy weirdness, and beasts who missed the weekend’s Mardi Gras festivities on Burgundy Street: “Mr. Mardi Gras is too late” and there are spooky haunted whistles, loping march beats, and macabre vocals. “Hey Shango” is an interesting lively piece in the center of the album, again featuring horns, and a march of instruments and lyrics. The idea was to capture the features of some New Orleans and Louisianan history, and credit African Americans for the beginnings of good Americana music at the same time. “Samba Bamburra led the insurrection at the plantation at Fort Rosalie,” and then the chorus calling to the African god “Shango” in the face of the fear of “Louis Congo, the African executioner” who inspired fear in New Orleans at the time African slaves and freed slaves were allowed to come together and play music in Congo Square.

“Something Wicked” is 1:24 minute instrumental you absolutely must focus on even if you never give another song on the album a listen. Fiddle player Dr. Sick performs some unique fiddle magic, then it’s Mathus plucking banjo (or at least this is what it sounds like – but listen for yourself). “West of Zanzibar” continues the merriment, with some nice fluid singing by Jimbo Mathus; note that as raucous as the album is, the singing and musicianship is all skill and no joke. Mathus has a very pleasant voice in the midst of the frolicking. “Rusty Trombone” takes off mimicking some old timey jazz cartoons and irreverent fun, and “Use What Mama Gave You” follows suit with burlesque sung by Cella Blue. “Axman Jazz” and then “Something Wicked Pt. 1”, mysteriously sequenced after Pt 2, is another instrumental showcase you’d be well advised not to miss, with more unidentifiable fiddle sounds, like creaking doors and twisting strings, with plucked banjo at a sleepwalking zombiesque lurchy pace. Rounding out the album “Fade” is the languid blue jazzy album closer.

Band members include Jimbo Mathus and Dr. Sick; Cella Blue on vocals and Tamara Nicolai on bass; Charlie Halloran and Colin Myer on trombones, Dave Boswell on trumpet, Neilson Bernard III on drums; Leslie Martin on piano, with Chris Phillips on percussion. Vocals were also contributed by Tamar Korn and Vanessa Niemann [for more on Vanessa Neimann as Gal Holiday click one of these bolded words], piano was also contributed by Kris Tokarski. Co-produced by Jimbo Mathus and Dr. Sick; engineered by Mike Napolitano in New Orleans, mixed by Eric Ambel with Mario Viele in Brooklyn, and inspired by the poet Ron Cuccia and the fantasia of New Orleans, and cover art by J.D. Wilkes, this album is wholly unique. [Read more about Eric Ambel by clicking one of these words here.]  [Read more about J.D. Wilkes by clicking one of these words here.] Get your copy here      [To listen to another of Jimbo Mathus’ projects, click one of these words here.]

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