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Artist: Pajo

Album: Pajo

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jul. 24, 2005


David Pajo is no stranger to the tactfully understated. He seems to shun the spotlight when working with confrontational and flashy artists like Slint or Zwan (heh, Zwan) just as much as with intrinsically subtle ones like Tortoise and Will Oldham. Even on a handful of generally lovely solo releases as Papa M or Aerial M, or Thirteenth Letter, or simply M he shrouds himself in some degree of willful obscurity. The title of the 2001 EP Papa M Sings sounds like kitsch until you consider that it's the first time in Pajo's lengthy career, give or take some obscure B-sides, that you hear his voice.

Pajo, as its straightforward name would suggest, moves away from that kind of introversion. It's not as though Pajo was ever apprehensive about his musical or vocal abilities, or had any reason to be rather, it's that this album exudes a carefree immediacy that his past releases seldom even hinted at. In terms of his own catalog Pajo is closest to Papa M's Whatever, Mortal (and the various numbered EPs that followed it), by virtue of their shared rustic folk-country overtones, yet the similarities don't go much deeper. Pajo has neither the instrumental lushness nor the studied restraint of Mortal: just guitar and vocals into a computer, occasionally augmented with no-frills drum loops, free and nearly weightless.

The most musically apparent point of comparison is Elliott Smith's second (self-titled) solo album from 1995. Pajo employs quiet space beautifully here, amplifying his hushed couplets and fret noises by surrounding them with nothing but a vague tape hiss (rather, laptop microphone hiss). Yet where the power of Smith's album was its extraordinary bleakness, Pajo sounds perfectly content. His narrator is old-fashioned and chivalrous, afflicted only by the troubadour's timeless malaise no different from before, really, except that the ham-fisted wheat-and-chaff language of Mortal is wisely toned down. Pajo multitracks and harmonizes his voice on several songs and strikes a fairly even balance between Smith's depressive sparsity and Simon & Garfunkel's airy lilt.

For that matter, most soft-spoken guitar-picking (and usually beard-having) folk bards come to mind somewhere along Pajo's unhurried 45 minutes Oldham, Iron & Wine, M. Ward, Dolorean but none demand more than a reverent nod. The record sticks together well on its own terms, and, if initially it seems to do so too well, it's all the more pleasing when the submerged variations between songs eventually come to light. Flimsy digital drums set a few numbers apart: they intrude awkwardly on "Oh No No," but anchor "High Lonesome Moan" fairly naturally, and add an unexpected warmth halfway through the gorgeous "Manson Twins." Elsewhere, "Baby Please Come Home" strains to get noisy but settles into a lively gallop, while the a cappella first verse of "Mary of the Wild Moor" is quite affecting.

The closer, "Francie," a Slint-esque mix of shimmering guitar and foreboding spoken-word, feels a bit thick for a record where the mood is so gentle and subtle. It's strange, and undoubtedly incongruous, but it bears Pajo's fingerprints in a familiar and intriguing way. If nothing else, it acts as a clumsy marker by which to consider the simple grace of the songs that precede it, and in turn the records that precede them: while "Francine," as well as Whatever, Mortal and even Papa M's excellent minimalist debut Live From A Shark Cage, are invested with a wide-eyed sense of gravity, Pajo remains light as air.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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