After giving neo-swing powerhouse Squirrel Nut Zippers its biggest hit in the late '90s with the very addictive calypso, Hell, Tom Maxwell proceeded to lay down the group's most intriguing works -- especially The Kraken and the apocalyptic Soon -- on their ensuing album, Perennial Favorites, before eventually calling it quits and going solo. Maxwell decided to embrace the indie route wholeheartedly, recording and releasing Samsara on his own label of the same name. Although ownership and absolute control helped the multitalented songwriter sleep at night, distribution ended up being a nightmare, and Samsara never got the attention it deserved, especially since the scene-friendly mainstream public dropped jazz like a hot potato once the boy bands took over Top 40. But that's their bad, because Samsara still holds up well against the test of time, mostly because its music is indeed timeless -- with lively versions of Duke Ellington's The Moocher, T-Bone Walker's Don't Give Me the Runaround, George Jones' Flame in My Heart, classic standards like Some Born Singing, as well as Maxwell's usually inventive compositions, Samsara covers quite a bit of sonic territory. Three Fires Blues is a haunting Robert Johnson-like throwback, Caveat Emptor is a kitchen-sink instrumental (featuring, as does the entire disc, Zippers such as Chris Phillips and Ken Mosher) that keeps its boogie tight, and Some Born Singing is an Asian-tinged highlight reel for Maxwell's female counterpart, Holly Harding Baddour, who runs through scales like they're going out of style. And while it is Maxwell's blinding diversity that engineers Samsara's impressive historical feel, it is Baddour that is the disc's secret gift. Her turn on disc's finale, aptly named Samsara (the Buddhist cycle of suffering and self-loss that complements the more desired nirvana), is poignance defined, buttressed as it is by Maxwell's contemplative lyrics ("Trapped at birth/Determine what it's worth/We work the most to gain the things we can the least attain/So thank you for everything beautiful"), Emily Laurance's winsome harp, and an ascending coda that spirals the album into a final peace. Good stuff, to be sure, and something you will not find elsewhere. But it's what those who listen to him have come to expect from Maxwell. Now it's just about getting those who've never heard him on board for the party.
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AllMusic Review by Scott Thill