Bio Ritmo and Squirrel Nut Zippers

Bio Ritmo
Rumba Baby Rumba!
Triloka/Mercury

Squirrel Nut Zippers
Perennial Favorites
Mammoth

HERE'S A LESSON in late-'90s music-business marketing: If your group looks like a swing band--based, say, on its number of members, its use of horns, or its snazzy dress--you might be able to jump on the latest retro bandwagon and ride it to pop stardom. At least that seems to be the hope of whoever decided to name Bio Ritmo's major-label debut Rumba Baby Rumba!

Just as the so-called neo-swing bands aren't aiming to attract jazz purists, Bio Ritmo, with its Ricky Ricardo shtick, probably isn't planning to pick up a fan base in Miami. A Richmond, Virginia-based, indie-cultured group that's more likely to have played with Superchunk than any legends of Afro-Cuban music, Bio Ritmo aims to cross over as only a salsa band from Richmond, Virginia, would. Ironically, the image tweaking this eight-piece underwent in transition from popular East Coast rock-club draw to Copacabana caricature actually undermines the fact that Bio Ritmo's main songwriter is a Cuban expatriate with some real musical credentials. To his credit, Rene Herrera understands his audience well enough to offer a set of catchy melodies, sung mostly in English, that don't aim to inspire anything more than some dance-floor hip-swaying and smiles all around.

When the band members try playing it straight, on songs such as "Bin Bin," they tend to rely on clichéd riffs that even competent playing can't make stick. They also slip up with an obvious cover of "Tequila," which suggests Latin music as a Warner Bros. VP with a degree in semiotics would have it. But on fun, inauthentic pop hybrids like the salsoul take on the old Wilson Pickett classic tele-tune, "Call Me Up (644-7215)," and the goofball Caribbean "Ugly," Bio Ritmo succeeds most convincingly. Like the group's friends Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bio Ritmo transcends rote revivalism when it lets its music's natural eccentricities--and pomo inclinations--strut their stuff. So, you can say what you will about bands that soft sell their infatuations with decades-old music while forsaking any conversation with what's going on in the here and now. But please, don't confuse market cycles with historical process and mistake Bio Ritmo for the genuine article. And don't take their contextual kissing cousins in the Squirrel Nut Zippers for a swing band (much less leaders of a swing revival).

There are at least two decades and three stylistic shifts separating the '40s "jump blues" of all those voodoo poppin' yuppies and the Zippers' 1920s "hot" jazz styles; the MTV fave "Hell" was a '30s-style calypso. In case you need more proof that the Zippers are removed from zoot-suited trends, the band's third album, Perennial Favorites, comes complete with a weepy old-time country ballad ("Low Down Man"), a sleepy tango ("My Drag"), a creepy klezmer-laced show tune ("Ghost of Stephen Foster"), a mechanically manic Raymond Scott-inspired cartoon soundtrack ("The Kraken"), and, for good measure, another calypso ("Trou Macacq"). Recorded quickly at home and featuring a mix of old material and newer songs, Perennial Favorites is a surprisingly slight, patchworkmanlike follow-up to a million-selling record. The fact that it was recorded a year and a half ago, just before the band exploded nationally, only adds to the album's strange sense of displacement.

But in the long run, Perennial Favorites just might end up the group's most important record--a small, dark masterpiece hiding in the shadow of its better-selling predecessor. That's because the record finds the Zippers spreading their wings, pulling their hair, and laughing at themselves in the mirror. What's more, Perennial Favorites' best moments capture the band's music exactly as it should be--like the creak of a dusty old chest opening to reveal a pirate map of forgotten American treasure.

 
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