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Tom Maxwell

Samsara Ltd.

Claiming that his Squirrel Nut Zippers would never be able to shake their novelty-act status, Tom Maxwell, the high-coiffed co-creator of the North Carolina-based neo-swing progenitors, left the band in June ’99. Another reason for his bolting, however, might be that the Zips just weren’t diverse enough: Maxwell, as his solo debut disc Samsara certainly proves, is a musical mad scientist, an utterly enigmatic (and maybe a bit stuffy, too) performer who’s just as chipper jumpin’ and jivin’ as he is messing about with calypso, country, and Chinese opera. Recorded at Kingsway Studios in New Orleans, Samsara—a Buddhist term for the infinite cycle of desire and dissatisfaction—is an utterly gorgeous mess, with Maxwell—who not only croons but plays guitar, clarinet, sax, and percussion—leading a diverse mob of session folk through a grab bag of musical genres: “Sixes and Sevens to Me” and “The Uptown Stomp” are steamy, pre-coital jazz jams; “Roll Them Bones” and “Don’t Give Me the Runaround” are cigs-‘n’-whisky blues; and “Flame in My Heart,” on which Maxwell duets with wife Melanie, is a menacing Old West weeper. And then there’s the oddly lovely “Some Born Singing,” the likes of which I haven’t heard since my old days watching my parents fight at the Hong & Kong. Did someone say Chinese opera revival? Oh sure: I can see those lost 20-somethings dusting off their thrift-shop kimonos right now. —Sean Daly