Squirrel Hut Zippers: Raising 'Hell'

WE DON'T GET IT EIther. Why are alternative-rock stations playing "Hell," by Squirrel Nut Zippers, about every five songs? This Cotton-Club-meets-calypso warning of eternal damnation has a ukulele intro, archaic squiggly sax and honor-comic lyrics. ("Teeth are extruded and bones are ground/And baked into cakes which are passed around.") "Hot," the new CD by this purist septet from Chapel Hill, N.C., offers a dozen original songs, somejust as bent, in '20s-'40s style: Ellingtonian plunger-muted cornet, pre-rock electric guitar, a singer who evokes both Billie Holiday and Betty Boop. Their CD has gone gold, outselling new discs by the likes of U2 and Aero-smith--and what impresses them? Meeting A1 Casey, Fats Waller's guitarist.

So here are the possibilities. (1) "Hell" is just the latest in a long line of retro novelty songs - the "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" of 1997. (2) It taps into millennial dread-the "Sing, You Sinners" of 1997. (3) It's a fun, campy put-on--the"YMCA" of 1997. (4) It shows kids are outgrowing rock and roll-the "Love Me Tender" of 1997. (5) Half a million or so people still respond to fresh-sounding music obviously made for the love of it. Our best guess? Some cute dodge like "all of the above"? Nope. We choose No. 5. Maybe just for the hell of it.