With the lid off!


As the tower-coiffed, bespectacled co-leader of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Tom Maxwell penned and sang the group’s 1997 breakthrough hit, "Hell," which nearly in and of itself crystallized the then-nascent popular neo-swing movement. His debut after breaking from the Zipper ranks, Samsara, is a diverse, rollicking, meditative and heartrending solo set, full of grounded, back roads-backroom humor, cosmic meditations and smoky barroom romps and ballads. With nary a notion of mere nostalgia, Maxwell has made a timeless pop record that recalls when pop meant "popular music," and that meant anything from jazz to calypso to country to torch songs and beyond. With a little instrumental and production help from Zipper vets Mike Napolitano and Ken Mosher, as well as remarkable guest spots from trumpeter Duke Heitger (on a splendid version of Duke Ellington’s "The Mooche") and pianist Tom Loncaric from Ann Arbor’s Imperial Swing Orchestra, Maxwell has assembled a cast of instrumental characters whose work here is as vibrant and original as the songs they tackle. It’s all here in the grooves of Samsara. From the album’s Chinese, Indian and exotica-pop bookend tracks – "Indicatif" and "Samsara," respectively – to Maxwell’s use of the game of craps as both motif and metaphor, he’s as adept at capturing the sublime as he is the ephemeral and ridiculous. And there’s not a "daddy-o" to be found in the lot.

Chris Handyside writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail letters@metrotimes.com.