The first thing to understand about Mercury Prize nominees the Zutons is that they’re really cute, in a good way. Cuteness can have negative connotations, usually involving playacting. But the Zutons are cute and minute, like a dollhouse, or my cats, or The Specials. They erect a musical dollhouse of their own, filled with good songs, for the most part, but more importantly with good song parts, like when they open “You Will You Won’t” with the riff from “Crosstown Traffic” and harmonies from Fresh Cream while their drummer stomps on the floor. That moment’s hard to beat, and there are plenty more in the same vein.
At this point I should caveat and kvetch that this album is not as good as The Specials—though, really, few are. To reach that level of jewel-encrusted musical dollhousery you’d need a lot more good tunes, “One! Two!”s, and “I-yi-yi”s. Also, the fact that most of their tricks are stolen from the ’60s (or, in the case of tritone-philic saxophonist Adi Harding, from Lora Logic) originally put me off, because it seemed just another kind of playacting. After I started singing along in the car, though, I realized the Zutons to be infinitely preferable to another, more horrific strain of cute: British Whimsy. Instead of singing about fairies or Tolkien or balloon men, I got to sing about a “Havana Gang Brawl,” in which neither I nor (probably) the Zutons have ever participated. Dorky? Modest? Sure, but also entertaining. And it didn’t make me wanna puke.
The Zutons play Hammerstein Ballroom February 2.