Review: Papa M – Hole of Burning Alms

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy April 5, 2004

Here, my friends, is the stumbling block. After the endless horizons and majestic twists and turns of the recent audio tour diary EP series, David Pajo has released a full-length, 12-song collection of odds and ends taken from the M/Aerial M/Papa M days of 1995 to 2000. The CD, which runs nearly 80 minutes, has some breathtaking moments to be sure, but these moments are largely familiar to anyone who’s followed Pajo through his penchant for frequent name changes or his desire to release great material between full-length platters. In short, in an attempt to provide structure and easy accessibility to Pajo’s wonderfully random and disorganized musings, some of his lack of predictability — the thing that makes it so damned difficult and oddly inviting to map his musical movements from A to B to C — is lost.

The oddly titled Hole of Burning Alms begins when Pajo was still ruminating on M being the 13th letter with “Safeless” and “Napoleon,” two straight-forward, guitar-driven offerings that ring of Pajo’s work with former Slint-mate Brian McMahan in The For Carnation. While not derivative, both songs could be right at home on The For Carnation’s vastly overlooked Fight Songs EP, their feathery guitars building carefully through repetitive patterns and plodding bridges. It’s not until “Wedding Song No. 3″ and “Mountains Have Ears” (taken from the M is … EP) that Pajo’s work begins to reflect the voice he’s developed in recent years, with guitars bending themselves in and out of time signatures as drums, effects and loops keep time. If anything, it’s tracks like these that show Pajo’s growth from his more guitar-focused days with Slint and The For Carnation to his more experimental work with Tortoise, circa the inspiring Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT.

But while “Vivea,” from the incredible October EP, may be one of M’s greatest tracks (here or anywhere), Hole of Burning Alms also includes tracks like “Travels in Constants,” which stumbles into an awkward and lengthy techno noise track after a somber introductory prayer. There are decent moments in M’s “Travels” (the second half of the nearly 14-minute offering can be spacey and effective) but, for the most part, it pales in comparison to what surrounds it.

Much could be said for the rest of the collection. The reflective acoustic scales of “Up North Kids No. 2″ and the playful banter of “She Said Yes” are wonderful, but they’re followed by a strange and not entirely illuminating 16-minute take on “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Recorded live and straight to tape (and with a full band, no less), “Turn, Turn, Turn” features some interesting, though subtle, takes on the familiar track but the endless loops and repetitions don’t build tension or envelope the listener so much as they wander off into space. (This is especially a let-down, given the sonic potential of Pajo and company reworking a 60s staple.) In the collection’s liner notes, Pajo says he spent a night doing Mexican speed before waking the other four musicians at 8 am to record the track. Listen to the track again and, oddly enough, you can tell. Hole ends after “Turn, Turn, Turn” with a strange reprise, nearly four minutes of techno-flecked loops of piano and keyboards taken from a Drag City audio Christmas card in 1997.

Pajo includes some insightful — and some random — liner notes in his latest full-length which may or may not speak to why his recorded output doesn’t fall entirely in the universe of the LP. He talks about experimentation and pokes fun at the aesthetics of the D.I.Y. mentality, but also suggests that the collection’s 12 tracks illustrate, in some ways, “the life of some guy in eighty minutes.” It’s a fitting description. While those 80 minutes were better witnessed in “real” time — with jumps, leaps and pauses between each 7″ and EP and outtake — they do offer a fleshed-out picture of the sounds of M.

It is an interesting picture filled with some surprises and some creature-comforts, though one best left to completists, existing fans and those who have already discovered Pajo through his full-length records and frequent collaborations.

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