Those who remember Tom Maxwell as the Squirrel Nut Zipper with the irritating, Kermit-the-Frog-in-a-horror-movie voice will be pleased to know that nothing's changed. But those who remember him as the author of the Zippers' most ebullient and immediately memorable songs will be nothing short of ecstatic when they hear this, his debut solo record.
Samsara takes its name after a Buddhist term for an endless cycle of desire and dissatisfaction, a possible reference to Maxwell's near-manic ingesting and regurgitation of old musical styles. The record reflects that, embarking on a thrilling odyssey that dabbles in Chinese opera ("Some Born Singing"), old-school country (George Jones' "Flame in my Heart"), Raymond Scott-style cartoon themes ("Caveat Emptor"), and Ellington standards ("The Mooche"), as well as the hot jazz ("Sixes and Sevens to Me") one might expect. The miracle is that it makes any sense at all.
If some of the record reminds you of the Zippers, which Maxwell quit in 1999, that's because it is the Zippers. Bassist Stu Cole, drummer Chris Phillips and multi-reed player Ken Mosher essentially function as the house band throughout. The high point--and, in a just world, a million-selling single the minute it hits the streets--is "Can't Sleep," a Maxwell-penned dirty blues that features the "Remember" vocal quartet. On gloriously dragged-out lines like "Oh loooord, I've lost the thing that I can't keep," the baritone-heavy doo-wop group acts as a perfect foil for Maxwell's high-register delivery.
Samsara's sonic qualities are worth noting. The album was made at Daniel Lanois' fancy Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, the same place where the Zippers have worked in the past. It sounds like Maxwell and engineer Mike Napolitano went to great lengths to rough things up a bit, to make it recall one of the vintage pre-1950s recordings that Maxwell loves so much. And it works, as the hot jazz seems comfortable shaking hands with a little indie-rock lo-fi.
Tom Maxwell plays Cat's Cradle on May 27.