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Papa M - Hole of Burning Alms

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Artist: Papa M

Album: Hole of Burning Alms

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 2, 2004

Critical consensus dictates that what made the music of Louisville so vibrant in the early to mid-1990s has since exhausted itself. Descriptors like “brooding atmospherics” and “textured soundscapes” have, over the course of a decade, turned into weary pejoratives, coded phrases that warn of plodding, repetitive guitar figures and prog-rock bombast. It’s an unfortunate fact because, hype aside, bands like Slint and Rodan, Chicago’s For Carnation and Tortoise, all made great records in the early to mid-’90s, suggesting bold new directions for punk-obsessed indie rock. Most of these bands only released a full-length or two, but they left the door open behind them for lesser bands with similar ambitions to saturate small venues and college radio airwaves. Value systems have since shifted – it’s the nature of the game – and these days ’90s Louisville sleeps like a time capsule buried deep in the earth, awaiting resurrection in the form of a 5-cd retrospective box set ca. 2030 or so.

David Pajo – with Millions Now Living Will Never Die, two Slint full-lengths, the first For Carnation EP, and some Palace singles (among many other collaborations) – has appeared on more records from this period than anybody else. He’s also recorded some of the scene’s best music himself, releasing it under names like M, M is the Thirteenth Letter, Aerial M, and Papa M. Thankfully, his teaser for the 2030 Louisville/Chicago box set has just arrived courtesy of Drag City in the form of a singles collection spanning the years 1995-2000. Among other things, Hole of Burning Alms serves as a reminder that Pajo’s subtle guitar tone was indispensable to the cacophony going on around it – the mortar between the bricks of Slint’s howling crescendos, the muted, earthly anchor for Tortoise’s taut, post-modern groove. Pajo’s early style is distinctive; he presses a hot iron to each of his notes, smoothing them at their ends, pausing a half-second too long, shifting the mood from calm to ominous and often back again. There’s an intense focus to his earliest singles – “Vol De Nuit,” “Wedding Song No. 3,” “Vivea,” and the other songs comprising the first half of Hole of Burning Alms – that places them in the company of his finest full-length, Live From A Shark Cage. They rumble and quake with a lumbering low-end fury, then slip slowly into a quiet, chiming melody. At face they seem straightforward, but their push-and-pull is dazzling and prismatic.

In 1998, Pajo pulled an about-face on the B-side to his October single by covering The Misfit’s “Last Caress.” It was the first time he’d sung on tape, and the results are chilling. A hushed guitar line and some short-wave radio hiss barely props up Pajo’s quavering voice, but Danzig’s lyrics do more than enough of the talking. It’s the single best non-instrumental Pajo track, and save for Live From A Shark Cage, much of what’s come since (and much of what follows on Hole of Burning Alms) trades a reliably laser-like focus for a mixed-bag of impromptu odds and sods. His contribution to the Travels in Constants series, for example, couples guitar effects with thumping, generic techno to no real end. “Up North Kids No. 2,” on the other hand, is a fine second take on the track from Shark Cage, balancing the original banjo line with a meatier and more satisfying bass. The song manages what much of Shark Cage does well, which is to infuse delay-pedal noodling with a smoky, backwoods vibe (banjo and hollow casket thumps). Burning Alms eventually saunters to an end with a sloppy 16-minute instrumental overkill of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and a bubbling, synth-based Christmas tune. Nothing special.

Pajo presents Hole of Burning Alms as a journey through time, and this approach organizes his material effectively while also reflecting the breadth of his solo career. Like his full-lengths, the singles from 1995 to early1999 suffer a bit from uniformity, but they muscle through on the strength of their precision and detail; in other words, they’re uniformly great. The second half of the singles comp, like Whatever Mortal and Papa M Sings, demonstrates an increasing restlessness, a desire to capture an off-the-cuff aura, but the drawbacks to that approach are more significant. Still, Pajo’s solo material is some of the best to emerge from one of the ’90s most inventive centers, and he’s one of the few Louisville alums still recording with any kind of regularity (he’s already released two new singles since the beginning of this year). No doubt Hole of Burning Alms will serve well as both a primer and an easy way to play catch-up.

By Nathan Hogan

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Whatever, Mortal

Three Songs

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