November 1998
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Squirrel Nut Zippers Christmas Caravan

by Jessica Brandt

What's up with this? The Zippers keep us waiting a long time for their third full release, and a month later they come out with a whole new album. Well, this is Christmas music, so I guess it doesn't count as a "regular" album.

Christmas Caravan You've got to give credit to anyone who comes up with 8 brand new Christmas songs (The album contains 10 tracks, 8 original), but dare I say it, this one left me longing for a little more. Not to mention, it's so short (like the other Zipper releases, all under 40 minutes). And I don't get that full Christmas feel from it, ie thoughts wandering to snowy fields and big evergreen trees. However, after listening to it a few times, I got this insatiable urge for a fat mug of eggnog...

They start it off with a cover of "Winter Weather" which of course sounds perfectly beautiful with Katherine's voice. Je Widenhouse dazzles with the lazy, muted trumpet line as well. "Indian Giver" is yet another "different" style for the Zippers. Penned by Jimbo Mathus, it's got quite the 50's-style R&B sound to it, although it still lacks that real Christmas feel. However, it does rock out.

The instrumental "Sleigh Ride" is done well, and finally is a really great feature for Widenhouse on trumpet. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs to play and listen to, and I think that most horn players might share my sentiment. It swings, as it should, but with the addition of a Dixieland-esque clarinet line towards the end, there is that certain Zipper-fied feel to it.

"I'm Coming Home for Christmas" is really beautiful, sung by Mathus, and you can feel the longing in his voice to be back for the holidays. It's got a bit of a country feel to it, with a lazy guitar and backup organ. "Carolina Christmas" is my favorite track, written by guitarist/woodwind Tom Maxwell and woodwind/guitarist Ken Mosher, who both have quite a sense of humor ("It's Christmas in Carolina/ We're chillin' in our underwear"). It swings as well, with a simple sax line and snazzy guitar pickin'. Who knows, THIS may be thrown into the pot of standard Christmas tunes someday, along with Porky Pig's "Blue Christmas" and John and Yoko's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)."

"Gift of the Magi" is, just as the title suggests, about O. Henry's "awwwww" inspiring story of the same name. Of course, you can't help but love a Jim and Katherine duet. It's got quite the bluegrass feel, thanks to the guest mandolinist. "Hot Christmas" comes next, and you guessed it, it swings out. Regular Zipper jiven' and walin' going on in this instrumental. The only glint of the holiday you'll find in this tune is the softly sung "hoooooootttt Christmas."

Finally, "Hanging Up my Stockings" is disturbing, to say the least. Originally written by drummer Chris Phillip's grandfather, the Zippers turn it around, add some woodwinds to it, and then change direction towards the end. The beginning sounds just like the original (you can hear it in it's original form as the album's "hidden track"). But then comes the Ghost of Christmas Past, or something like that, and frankly, I don't know what to say. To give you a hint, the instrumentation included bass clarinet, castanets, chimes, and timpani.

So, if you're looking for a good Christmas album, I suggest looking elsewhere. If you want a cute little Christmas card in CD-form from the Zippers themselves, complete with childhood Christmas snapshots, this is something to put on your shopping list. Who knows, maybe this is how Christmas songs sound in the South. I tend not to venture down there.

B [85%]

Buy Christmas Caravan on-line from CDNow

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