Tom Maxwell has been to "Hell" and back. As a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, he -- unintentionally, he swears -- helped engender what became a full- out swing movement amid the din of mid-to-late-'90s alt-rock and gangsta rap. Never mind that "Hell" isn't, strictly speaking, a swing tune; it still drew latter-day zoot-suiters and lounge lizards to the Zippers like moths to a flame. Their album Hot sold 1.2 million copies, and the rest, as they say, is fodder for VH1's Where Are They Now?
Well, here's where Maxwell is now -- freshly un-Zipped, having left the band he helped found over those always pesky creative differences and the need to perform solo material. He has a new album, Samsara, which is eclectic in the extreme. Listening to it is a little like wandering into the sort of nightspot you can only visit in your dreams -- part Cotton Club, part juke joint, part German cabaret. Part Knitting Factory, part Star Wars cantina.
As was the case with his Zippers material, on Samsara Maxwell uses the language of vintage pop-music forms, but it never feels like a strictly retro trip. He roams from one style to another, incorporating hot jazz ("The Uptown Stomp"), blues- and gospel-based sounds (the irrepressible "Can't Sleep" and "Roll Them Bones"), hardcore honky-tonk ("Flame in My Heart"), and Chinese opera -- yes, Chinese opera ("Some Born Singing"). Done without care, it's the sort of album that could sink itself in an ocean of kitsch, but that never happens. Nearly all of it rings true, even the short opening piece, "Indicatif," on which Maxwell plays the sona, an Asian horn that sounds as if it's issuing a warning or announcing the arrival of someone special.
That latter description will suffice for Maxwell and for Samsara. He's a unique talent (on the basis of the building-permit-required height of his hairdo alone), and the disc is a rollicking good listen. Here's hoping that his show will be the same.
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