By 1997, the public had enough of alternative rock. Following the death of Kurt Cobain and the dissipation of grunge, American music struggled to get back on its feet, fighting off the Pearl Jams of the world through Britpop and pop-punk. It was't until ska-punk came along, however, that the mold was completely broken, re-introducing not only the long-forgotten joys of pure pop effervescence, but also the presence of brass in popular music. The public, having been almost blind from those years of flannel and self-deprecating lyrics, saw this brass-laden pop as the perfect opportunity for light-hearted escapism and gobbled it up, ultimately leading to what is now remembered as perhaps the most unexpected (and ridiculously superficial) movements of the 1990s: the swing revival.
It’s easy to understand how neo-swing came to be, but it’s impossible to understand why it turned out the way it did. Since the genre’s origins in the early 1990s, the (rather minuscule) swing scene had prided itself in a heavy sense of wistful nostalgia, building its entire image through their retro style and perpetual cover songs. Only a freak occurrence could have launched it into the public eye, and, alas, that freak occurrence was the umpteenth revival of ska, and swing began to rise up the charts.
Thus, it could have been a step in the right direction when what proved to be the most popular band of the movement--the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies--was not a “swing band” at all, but rather a lyric-driven rock/funk/swing/ska/*enter genre here* ensemble that stumbled into the scene entirely by accident. Sure enough, Zoot Suit Riot is a compilation album, made up of purely the straight swing tracks from the band’s first three albums along with four new songs, hastily slapped together after concertgoers would ask which Daddies albums had the most swing songs on them.
But does a single-genre compilation album from a band whose entire aesthetic is rooted in multi-genre eclecticism and album-oriented lyricism work? Well, it does and it doesn’t. Firstly, as an album, it fails.
Regardless of whether or not the public was aware that the Daddies weren't a swing-only band, that fact still greatly harms the overall flow of the album. As swing was not their primary focus, nor did the band strive for nostalgic authenticity, they never adhere to any single musical or lyrical approach: “Dr. Bones,” for instance, nearly ventures into rapid-fast ska-punk territory, complete with modern, angsty, profanity-laced lyrics, while a few tracks down, “Shake Your Lovemaker” confidently showcases slow Dixieland jazz, its words bathed in retro imagery. When used on their respective albums, these tracks work and they work in relation with the rest of their album, but when they’re all thrown together out of context, it makes for a totally disjointed and inconsistent experience (except for those who are just looking for brainless party music, which “Zoot Suit Riot” must have come across as considering its multi-platinum status and Warped Tour potential). Adding to the confusion are the four newly recorded tracks, which were very obviously written solely for inclusion on a “swing album.” In complete contrast with the manic and somewhat abrasive neo-swing of the rest of the album, these tracks are slower, softer and jazzier, with singer Steve Perry’s nasally yelp suddenly turning into a deep-voiced croon. Most of these songs seem like complete throwaways: The eponymous “Riot” couldn't possibly have been conceived as anything more than something catchy to open their live shows.
Some of the tracks do stand out by themselves, as they do on their own albums. “Drunk Daddy” is probably the best of them, a prime example of the Daddies’ initial punk-rooted approach to swing, whose darkly comic lyrics regarding child abuse rank among the band’s best. “Master and Slave” shows surprising lyrical complexity (definitely the most profound to come out of the swing revival) and “Here Comes the Snake,” which is actually more of a jazz/rock hybrid, is, frankly, a really cool song, though its great lyrics regarding the inner struggle of good vs. evil will no doubt be obscured by people who prefer to read the inherent sexual innuendo in its title.
The Daddies manage to hit their highest point, however, with one of the new ones, “Brown Derby Jump.” Musically, the song perfectly captures the jump blues arrangements of the 1940s, and on the surface, it’s a hip, swingin’ number, but lyrically, the Daddies take the opportunity to introduce the bluntly honest lyricism that was so repressed during those supposedly slap-happy times. While so many future neo-swing bands would live and die by the “swingin’” lifestyle sung about by the Rat Pack, the Daddies were the only ones who were quick to discredit it: In their cautionary tale about a swing-era character driven to near-destruction by the sways of drugs, alcohol and women, they’re making clear that, nostalgia aside, times back then were just as bad as they are now. Society has progressed since then, and now that we are wiser and can express ourselves more freely, it effectively destroys this silly “wholesome” image we have of the past, showing that clinging nostalgically to that era is an exercise in futility (too bad Brian Setzer didn’t get that message in time...).
Had the Daddies the time to craft and record an all-swing album, I have no doubt it would have been incredible--musically excellent and by far the most lyrically profound thing to surface from a mostly superficial movement. As it stands, however, Zoot Suit Riot presents a no-win situation for its listeners: Those looking to take a break from the bleak waters of Top 40 rock will find the novelty wearing off extremely quick; those who enjoy the album will have nowhere else to go as the rest of the Daddies discography is predominantly non-swing; and, worst of all, Daddies fans barely have any use for it (I didn't buy a copy until three years after I bought their first four, and it was solely to complete my collection).
It’s obvious why Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brian Setzer Orchestra continued their commercial success into the new century, as their approach was more single-minded (“capitalize on the public’s love of all things retro“) while the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies faded into obscurity after returning to their multi-genre roots on their next album (who’dathunk choosing integrity over selling out would be career suicide?). The Daddies are a good band--some may even say a great band--but they just happened to be at the wrong place at the right time: They grabbed on to what was working in their favor, and it ultimately pigeon-holed them into one-hit-wonder obscurity. I expect one day--long after the band has folded--the public will rediscover the Daddies and come to truly, truly appreciate them...I just pray it’s not for “Zoot Suit Riot” again.
In the bigger picture, though, Zoot Suit Riot was a major step forward.
It’s easy to look back at the swing revival with derision (as I myself have done from time to time), but one has to wonder what it could have become with the right approach. Neo-swing had the potential to follow in the footsteps of ska and rockabilly (i.e. taking a music from the past and updating it to modern rock sensibilities), but it unwisely sidestepped its musical evolution, favoring gimmicky retro revisionism in the way of constant cover songs and a cartoonish “swing, daddy-o!” image, complete with cheesy band names, vintage fedoras and lyrics recalling the “good ol’ times”...a textbook case of style over substance.
One has to admire the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies--even after they almost sold their soul to Satan--when they became a part of the swing revival crowd, for attempting to rebel against everything that the movement was ridiculed for: their attempts at the aforementioned musical evolution via melding swing with ska and rock; their lyrical proficiency, tackling such topics as child abuse and alcoholism while other neo-swing bands were struggling to write about and drinking martinis and lindy hopping; and their truly modern attitude (they are, as far as I know, the only “swing band” to use four-letter words).
Zoot Suit Riot shouldn't be seen as the defining image of neo-swing. If anything, it should be seen as a musical blueprint...an idea of what swing needs to become in order to establish it as a respected genre. The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies couldn't do it (nor should they be expected to; they have their own thing going on), but I believe one day a band will follow up on their groundwork and swing will no longer be the butt of a punk rocker’s joke.