Wow, 1997 seems forever ago. My first exposure to the Cherry Poppin' Daddies (CPD) was hearing "Zoot Suit Riot" on the airwaves as they were gaining traction on the radio. The sweet swing/jazz groove of CPD stuck with me in the same era as releases from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. And though I'm a huge fan of swing, one way or another I managed to lose track of CPD over the last ten years.
It seems that the band took a break in the early 2000s after their fourth album Soul Caddy didn't do as well as they'd hoped. During the downtime, singer Steve Perry completed a degree in molecular biology and the rest of the band spent time with their families, always trying to figure out how to bring swing back out of the shadow of pop music.
In 2006, "Zoot Suit Riot" was used during a dance number on So You Think You Can Dance and interest was once again sparked in the band. In 2007, they started work on a new album, Susquehanna, which was originally released on the band's website in 2008 and CPD started touring again. The album features primarily West Coast and Latin influences — flamenco, greaser rock, swing, ska, glam and soca — once again mixing things up and adding new qualities to the band's swing/ska sound.
If you listen to the song subjects, these are not cheery – but focus on a coming-of-age story. As Perry says, "The goal of the theme was to give the impression of various relationships in decay (in particular a male-female one) with memory, time, and personal isolation being important touchstones." It provides an interesting structure to the musical landscape of the album.
Before I dig into the songs a bit, I just want to state for the record that it's amazing to have these great, talented musicians once again on the scene. If you've not yet experienced CPD, but enjoy swing, I recommend you pick up their Zoot Soot Riot album at a bare minimum. There's something about the energy – the feel – of the music from these guys that brings across the best qualities of swing without being old-fashioned.
The story of Susquehanna begins with a man in conflict with himself in "Bust Out." He tries to be part of the world, forging relationships, but only feels comfortable when he's lost in the crowd. Dark with a definite Latin feel, this tune grooves along to a conversation between the bass line and the horns… "And in his dreams he’d free himself to be with others like a lovin' brother. / But then he turned away / … / The only time the isolation ever ends is on stage."
"The Mongoose and the Snake" continues the theme, this time showing the end of a relationship. The man has parked in front of the house, recently sold, where he and his lover once lived. Now "he sits with himself in his car for a moment / It’s stuffed with confusion like its sick with everything he owns." This time, it's more of a slowed down rockabilly style behind the scenes.
In "Hi and Lo", the man, now single, is hanging out and thinking about his old friend who he used to talk to. "It would be nice to hear from you, you must be better / then when you used to call me for advice all drunk and sad 4 am / we both had lost our girlfriends but a sense of humor never / In the summer we saved each others' lives by hangin' out together." We all need those friends now and then.
The rest of the album works through more childhood vignettes as he thinks back over his life and wonders how he's changed. Eventually he decides to accept his past, remembering "The Good Things" – "It's only the good things / so come as you are / it's only the good things that shine / whether or whether not…"
Honestly this is an amazing undertaking and something rarely seen any more. In an age of MP3s and playlists, bands don't arrange their albums to be listened to from beginning to end. I'm a fan. Not only is it great music, but it tells a series of interconnected stories. “I wanted each song to come across as a chapter in a modernist novel,” Perry says of the record, “like James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the literary style/genre that each chapter is written in is radically different. So it’s a pop album, disjointed, and maybe even jarring, in style and structure, but it’s thematically coherent.” Music on multiple levels always gets me going.
CPD, celebrating their 20th year in the music business, will be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame on October 17, 2009. The OMHOF is a non-profit organization created to help preserve Oregon's unique musical heritage by paying tribute to exceptional Oregon musicians of the past and promoting the musicians of today, while enriching Oregon's music education programs. In a time when music education is being cut due to education budget shortfalls across the country, OMHOF mission has never been more important.
Be sure to check out Susquehanna from Cherry Poppin' Daddies when it's released on September 29, 2009. Take a listen to their brand new album out the same day — Skaboy JFK: The Skanin' hits of the Cherry Poppin' Daddies for even more great music! Get to the CPD's website for more information about the band, tour dates, and more.