Squirrel Nut Zippers
The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers

Nostalgia is the opium of popular culture partially because it's artistically lazy, but more importantly because it's too familiar to stir much enthusiasm. A little fun, though, can go a long way toward making regurgitations of old music palatable, even exciting. Take, for instance, North Carolina's Squirrel Nut Zippers, a seven piece postmodern jazz band that makes some of the most inspired music you've heard a million times before.

The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers rediscovers the high-energy, emotional "Hot Music" of the pre-bop decades by cutting into everything from ragtime to swing to the sultry jazz of Billie Holiday. The band capably conjures moods throughout, whether that mood be exuberant with flailing banjo and slap brush percussion or plaintive with muted trumpet and melancholy vocals.

Despite the Chapel Hill rock pedigree of many Zipper instrumentalists, much of their debut sounds gloriously evocative of early jazz. While "Wash Jones" and "La Grippe" might echo Tom Waits' modern voice, winsome originals such as "Lover's Lane" and "Good Enough for Granddad" sound like standards, and covers such as Walter Donaldson's "You're Driving Me Crazy" get due justice to boot.

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And though the Zippers don formal dresses and tuxedos, these young hep chicks and cats are no lounge-core loafers. The Zippers plow through their instantly gratifying anachronisms without a hint of irony or fabulousness, and with every indication that they're solid musicians with a very real grasp on what it takes to legitimately compose and perform dynamic music.

-- Roni Sarig

Alex Chilton
A Man Called Destruction

Alex Chilton is probably the most influential and talented artist not to earn even a reference in Rock of Ages, Rolling Stone's "official" history of rock and roll. Acknowledged as the inventor of power pop, Chilton's three seminal albums with Big Star in the early '70s inspired a host of imitators and worshippers, among them the Replacements (who titled a song after him), R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Let's Active, the dBs, the Bangles and almost any other band that combines classically structured, hook-laden tunes with power chords, snappy guitar lines and smart lyrics.

A founding member of the Box Tops, and the voice behind both their number one hit "The Letter" and their number two hit "Cry Like a Baby," Chilton went solo in 1970, played the New York folk circuit for a year, then returned home to Memphis to join a group led by his friend Chris Bell. Big Star -- still the only group I can think of named for a supermarket chain -- debuted in 1971 with the superlative No. 1 Record. Its sparkling guitar pop, including the upbeat psychosis of "When My Baby's Beside Me," the acoustic yearning of "Thirteen" and the snarling recriminations of "Don't Lie to Me," was a breath of fresh air in that increasingly self-serious time, but inadequate distribution and nonexistent promotion left the album unheard. Internal tensions started to tear the group apart, founder Bell left, and the melancholy and alienation apparent at the end of No. 1 came to dominate Radio City, the masterful second album. The release of Third/ Sister Lovers, made it clear that Chilton's mind was disintegrating along with the group. Eerie vocals, sudden silences, half-completed tunes and a rather vague sense of song structure marked Chilton's slide into depression and out of Big Star.

Since then, Chilton's output has tended to come in patches and fragments of varying quality rather than in complete albums. In the wake of Big Star's 1993 near reunion (Bell had died in a 1978 car wreck), though, he seems to have found some focus. A Man Called Destruction is consistently appealing, if not always compelling. Chilton romps through a number of styles, from the zydeco-tinged "Sick and Tired" (written by Chris Kenner, composer of "Land of 1,000 Dances") to the Chuck Berry-in-Italian "Il Rebelle" to a straight cover of the Brian Wilson penned "New Girl in School." I couldn't tell if that last was a Beach Boys parody or homage; either way, it's pretty unnecessary, unless the real theme is nervous breakdowns. The disc's high points are "Lies," in which Chilton reaches back to his Memphis soul roots to come up with a Stonesy stomp, and his own "Don't Stop," which wouldn't have sounded out of place on No. 1 Record. None of the songs have the slightly off-kilter perspective that marked his best work, and some of the lyrics are downright pedestrian, but Chilton seems to have regained his sense of structure and production values; perhaps the rest will follow.

-- Peter Kelly

Guided by Voices
Alien Lanes

Guided by Voices, the mascots of anti-hero rock and 4-track hackery, chart another couple of afternoons in their basement on Alien Lanes. It's the band's ninth long-player, and their second since being unearthed from the rich Ohio clay a year or two ago.

So now that lead-Voice Robert Pollard and his buddies have quit their day jobs and bloomed into one of today's more successful indie rock institutions, what does the band's insistence on maintaining their signature muddy, humming home-recording sound signify when they could obviously afford something studio quality? There seem to be two possibilities: one, to continue delivering the stuff they built their name on, Guided by Voices have descended from stardom to self-parody quicker than any band since the Doors; or two, their sound wasn't an economic necessity, but instead a conscious artistic choice -- and hence reducible to this year's fad.

Either way, Alien Lanes finds Guided by Voices in the frustrating position of a new-aesthetic Moses: they can lead us to the low-fi promised land but can't enter with us. In other words, the band is like mass-marketed "homemade" cookies: a well-intentioned contradiction that has outgrown its usefulness.

But for everyone who still loves the music, maybe there's a third possibility. Maybe the home-style tape recorder is neither utility nor gimmick, but rather an irreplaceable piece of the band -- even more so than any instrument or musician. That makes Alien Lanes simply a better distributed chapter in the band's recasting of classic psychedelic rock as sloppy post-punk; another collage with dozens of irresistibly cryptic song snippets shifting speeds and colors but not stopping (except for a disturbing homosexual slur halfway through) until the last Beatlesque "all right" 28 songs on.

-- Roni Sarig

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