Louisville scene-vet David Pajo (aka Papa M) was a co-founder of seminal minor-chord molasses-rockers Slint. Since then, he has earned his indie rock stripes, serving time in Tortoise, Palace/Will Oldham/Bonnie "Prince" Billy, the For Carnation, Stereolab, King Kong and Royal Trux before embarking on his own solo project M, Aerial M, and its most recent incarnation, Papa M. Up through 1999's impressive "Live from a Shark Cage," Pajo's solo work has been an extension and progression of his work in Slint.
But early 2001 saw an abrupt turn in events with Papa M Sings, an EP that sounded more like his friend and cohort Will Oldham's melancholy country blues. Sings was refreshingly fun and short, leaving fans wondering if this was merely a one-off lark or new direction. Pajo's latest release, Whatever, Mortal, answers this with a resounding "Neither!" Or is it "Both"? I'll try to explain.
Whereas previous releases were all instrumental and nearly ambient, Whatever incorporates the best aspects of his previous work with the newfound interest in vocals and the country/folk thang. And, for the most part, it works.
A good half of the album is slightly reminiscent of Oldham's material, in its mellow, country-tinged meanderings, with that added element of spooky, backcountryness that is a staple of his work. This comes as little surprise, as Oldham himself contributes bass, piano, guitar and backing vocals to all the tracks here.
However, this is clearly Pajo's army. As a multi-instrumentalist, he does most of the playing here. Apart from the standard guitar, drums and vocals, Pajo incorporates and plays sitar, harmonica, banjo, car keys, dog tags and wood floor. How's that for experimental?
Furthermore, the standout tracks feature Pajo alone, left to many of his own devices. "Last of the Roch Royal" features those car keys and dog tags that enhance the song nicely. "Sorrow Reigns," on the other hand, has Pajo simply strumming an acoustic guitar and reciting a love that never was. As the shortest piece here, it's also where he seems most at ease and most confident in his singing.
Final note: A few tracks even (ahem) rock. Notably, "Beloved Woman," which features none other than ex-Slint drummer Britt Walford. The instrumental "Krusty," reminiscent of the "Shark Cage"material, even comes close to a Built To Spill and Modest Mouse-like tempo.
As cliché as it may sound, David Pajo is on a musical journey, and each record seems to represent and document a new discovery along the way. Unafraid to experiment with new sounds and odd instruments, Pajo's inquiry and inspiration goes against the grain of most new music out there. And this ain't a bad thing, either. Plus, how many musicians can you name who use car keys, dog tags and the kitchen floor? Now, who's your Papa?