Swing, Kids!

A Revival Tries To Make History of Its Own

You can roam further, if you dare. Dem Brooklyn Bums' There Goes the Neighborhood (YouGottaProblemWitDis) boy-bonds into self-parodic Onyx territory, defending the hood with baseball bats and pretending the world is a Brando flick in six testosterone-overdose toons. That's probably enough: Hipster Daddy-O and the Handgrenades, the "gangsters of swing," run a rocked-up but essentially similar formula into the ground on Armed and Swingin' (Slimstyle). The New Morty Show's cheese-swing on Mortyfied! (Slimstyle) is wittier: blithely accepting everything written before today into the canon, they swing Metallica, spice their Billy Idol medley with samba piano, and jab metal riffs or Yiddish in the middle of swing tunes, making sarcasm hummable.

If it's growth you're looking for, neither jokes nor re-creations will serve. But Royal Crown Revue's new The Contender (Warner Bros.) inadvertently reveals the narrowness of neo-swing's artistic horizons. The oldest band on the scene, Royal Crown make the catchiest records; both '96's zippy Mugzy's Move and the live Caught in the Act hold up to repeated listens, sonically at least. And if anything, the new one's more flavorful than before: the usual covers (a Louis Jordan calypso and "Stormy Weather," done as a lightweight shuffle) and guy stuff (archaic tough talk, boxing) for the purists, but also a bop chestnut, a boppish takeoff from the James Bond theme, and a Runyonesque tall tale. Still, it's glaring how, except for the Bettie Page tribute, which fingers the predicament behind a career in porn, Royal Crown can't find a way out of subcultural fantasy. "Walkin' Like Brando" celebrates movies as role models--this album takes nothing from life.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Haight Street's favorite band, who return with Perennial Favorites (Mammoth), aren't precisely swing revivalists, but they get lumped into the craze because of their period fashion. Like Hootie and the Blowfish, the Zippers follow up their breakthrough by getting pissed at everyone who bought it. ("You will really ape and clown when you realize the dough they're shelling out for this deal," sneers the first single, "Suits Are Pickin' Up the Bill.") Hot had some joy and an authentic revisionist viewpoint--death wish as the drive behind 1920s ebullience--but the new album feels italicized and sour, as if the band resents the success of its own aesthetic.

As two of its newest products reveal, right now neo-swing is running full speed toward a dead end of its own choosing. The road doesn't have to end there--revivalism can be creative if it writes new endings to old stories, as grunge did with hard rock. But if it doesn't find anything beyond refuge worth taking from the past, this particular movement's doomed to become a game of dress-up as sterile as the '70s revival or the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. What's ahead--weirder obscurities, yet another Brando tribute? So they beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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