Tom Maxwell, one of the founding members of retro-centric Chapel Hill crew Squirrel Nut Zippers, left the band in '99. One of the principal Zippers songwriters (among others, he authored their 1997 modern-rock chart hit "Hell"), as well as handler of guitar, sax and vocal chores, Maxwell was working on a solo album before he officially un-Zipped himself and the result is Samsara (the Buddhist concept
referring to the inevitability of change). Recorded primarily in the musical gumbo of New Orleans, the album brings in everything from blues, jazz and country to Asian music and retro-pop ballads, and it's all very post-alternative in its lust for sonic variety.
"Sixes and Sevens to Me" (RealAudio excerpt), a jumpin' bit of trumpet-highlighted swing-jazz, "The Uptown Stomp," a Dixieland/hot-jazz hybrid, and the Charleston/Lindy Hop groove of "Caveat Emptor" all bring to mind Maxwell's Zipper-y past, but he
doesn't linger there. Utilizing numerous local North Carolina musicians, Maxwell takes on a wide range of styles. "Can't Sleep," for instance, combines an R&B shuffle and a fuzzed-out lead guitar with the gospel vibe of the vocal quartet Remember, who also pitch in on "Roll Them Bones," a Maxwell original, in the vein of a Tin Pan Alley standard.
Blessed with a captivating voice, singer Holly Harding Baddour (formerly of Chapel Hill's Faustina) delivers an astonishing effort on Maxwell's imaginatively contrived foray into Chinese opera, "Some Born Singing." She also appears on the dreamy, '40s-style ballad "If I Had You," and provides a beautifully shaped vocal for the title track a fragile, spiderweb of a song keyed by the shimmering sound of
Emily Laurance's harp.
There are also a few notable covers here. Singing with his wife, Melanie, Maxwell turns in a campy version of an old George Jones/Virginia Spurlock duet, "Flame in My Heart" (RealAudio excerpt), and rounds out his musical free-for-alling with Duke Ellington's breezy "The Mooche" and T-Bone Walker's sophisticated blues tune "Don't Give Me the Runaround."
Check out the lyrics of the title song (RealAudio excerpt) and you'll understand Samsara's and the ever-eclectic Tom Maxwell's guiding philosophy: "To say you're born that way/ Allows you not to see the higher possibilities."