Review: Papa M – “One”

David Pajo is a master of the in-between.
Let’s start with the basics.
In between practically inventing “post-rock” with the legendary Slint and his growing oeuvre as M/Aerial M/Papa M, he’s played bass in Tortoise and guitar with The For Carnation and Zwan, toured with Stereolab, offered drum beats to King Kong, appeared on records by Palace and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and recorded with Will Oldham as Continental OP.
The man has a resume that could make someone like Steve Albini seem ill-connected in the indie world, and – beyond all of the fanfare that could go along with this – he still manages to craft incredibly textured, inventive, and emotive songs, always a step above and beyond your expectations.

Even with the niche he seems to be crafting for himself under the letter M, Pajo continues to be a master of the in-between. Sure, the full-length offerings As Performed By Aerial M and Live From A Shark Cage were majestic, and his most recent LP, Whatever, Mortal, was one of the best – if not the best – records of 2001/2002. (Hell, even the remix recitation Post Global Music and the folksy Sea Note EP Papa M Sings were incredible.)

But the material Pajo has released between those full-length records is just as much worth noting and celebrating.

Consider the beautiful “Vivea,” off the two-song October, the cryptic covers offered on the Songs of Mac EP, or just about every second you can pull from the mail order-only Three Songs (offered, appropriately enough, on a three-inch CD). Well, Pajo clearly knows the mediums where he works best and One, the first in a series of Drag City-released CD singles written and recorded around the country, is no exception.

The three-song disc begins with “Flashlight Tornado,” which – despite some colorful introductory notes from a keyboard – is a largely acoustic and folksy track. Recorded in Chicago, the song makes few allusions to the work Pajo did in that fair city while with Tortoise and, if anything, is closer in terms of voice and structure to Papa M Sings.

What keeps the song above a predictable guitar shuffle are the details: the carefully fingerpicked measures on guitar, the breathy backing vocals, the little appearances and re-appearances of keyboard notes, the Dylan-esque harmonica work.

The piece is quickly followed by an alternate take on “Beloved Woman,” first released in a more band-oriented and driving form on Whatever, Mortal. Now, while most bands fall flat on their faces when trying to extend a B-side and reprise some already released music, Pajo crafts a sonic landscape that seems to force all of the illuminating subtleties of the original to the forefront.

Instead of choppy guitars or the drums of former Slint-mate Britt Walford, One‘s take on the song relies almost entirely on cello, violin, keyboard, and Pajo’s reverb-heavy voice. With the progressions of the guitar nonexistent, the piece begins to feel like a resonating and prolonged minimalist drone, with Pajo’s voice serving as a kind of surreal punctuation to the proceedings.

The closing track, recorded in Pajo’s hometown of Louisville, is a folk-blues arrangement of The Reverend Gary Davis’ “I Am the Light of This World.” For all of the straight-forward nature of the song – the swaying acoustic verses and bridges, the occasional bluesy hammer-on of the guitar – there’s an incredibly emotive and inviting quality to it all, both in Pajo’s voice and the support lent from an incredibly well-mixed sitar.

The last time he sings, “I am the light of this world / Just as long as I’m in this world,” you almost wish the piece could stretch a few minutes longer.

I guess that’s what to expect in Two. Before you grab the second and the third installment, though, pick up One and see why what Pajo does in passing is just as engaging as what critics will inevitably hail as his next magnum opus. – Delusions of Adequacy, Aug. 11, 2003


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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