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Papa M - Whatever, Mortal

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Artist: Papa M

Album: Whatever, Mortal

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

The Louisville, Ky., scene’s prodigal sons David Pajo and Will Oldham have easily established themselves as its most prolific players. But despite a number of collaborative efforts between them, Pajo and Oldham have, until now, contented themselves with occupying rather separate domains. Oldham has long operated out of some dark Appalachian hollow, generously mining Harry Smith and William Faulkner alike for tales of murder, incest, and mayhem. Pajo, on the other hand, has always fixed himself somewhere closer to the stars, experimenting with waves of pedaled guitar emanating from a fixed point and drifting boundlessly into space. The Louisville music scene has long traced its path between Pajo’s orbit and Oldham’s dark hollow.

Enter Pajo’s “Whatever, Mortal.” Released under the Papa M moniker, the record neatly ties together Oldham’s yarn and Pajo’s strings. It is by no means the best of both worlds, but it is easily successful in the way that it unites, in reductive generic terms, post-rock and alt-folk/country. Take, for instance, the chorus of “Over Jordan.” Here Pajo, in a voice not unlike Bill Callahan’s, paints a solemn portrait of a dusty traveler over a simple guitar line before reaching a chorus that swells with vocal harmony and banjo, elevating the tale to epic, biblical proportions. Lyrics are directly akin to Oldham’s, but Pajo achieves autonomy by making his words equal players in the harmonic swell.

Throughout the album, Pajo generates feeling with airy production and beautiful playing – not with Palace-like larynx acrobatics. That the other-worldliness of “Live From A Shark Cage” actually enhances the folky quality of “Whatever, Mortal” causes it to easily surpass Pajo’s last offering, “Papa M Sings,” which fell into a rut of monotonous crooning and plucking.

Despite all this, dumb lyrics plague “Sorrow Reigns” and “Glad You’re Here With Me” (Johnny Cash beat Pajo to this stuff years ago), and even the fullness of the instrumentation can’t save the insipid tracks “Sabotage” and “Purple Eyelid.” Still, in the closing seconds of the penultimate “The Unquiet Grave,” Pajo picks himself up with a beautifully yearning spaghetti-Western guitar riff which carries perfectly into the closing song, “Northwest Passage,” a world-weary, back-porch remake of his by now classic “Arundel.” It’s the album’s most mature, evocative moment, and by the time the percussion kicks in, you’d just assume it last forever.

By Nathan Hogan

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