Three plays close to the tone and structure of its two predecessors, offering ballads for acoustic guitar and voice that remind the listener why Pajo and Will Oldham are such intriguing partners-in-crime. The Slint and Tortoise alum plays it straight on his reworking of the traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme,” accenting his country-tinged finger-picking with occasional backing vocals, cello, and violin (offered by Molly Kien and Maggie Polk, respectively, who are becoming frequent collaborators).
The song, careful but willfully emotive, would be just as at home on some Rounder Records comp highlighting the best of regional folk/folk-pop or Americana as it would in some high-minded, urban coffeehouse. Much the same could be said of “Truckstop Girl,” which Pajo closes with an unexpected semi-solo from distorted electric guitar.
The finest moment on Three, though, may be the closing track, the full-band offering “Who Knows.” The track has an incredibly radio-friendly air to it, with subtly multi-tracked vocals cascading over bridges of soft acoustic shuffling and glassy electric guitar. Though Pajo is presumably the only member of the M band on “Who Knows” (there’s no other contributor listed), the track’s clarity and sense of direction is oddly reminiscent of the more direct moments on Tortoise’s TNT, Pajo’s last LP with the band.
The main difference is that while Tortoise adds complex and sometimes cerebral passages to its work (thus the “post” in “post-rock”), Pajo’s “Who Knows” is evidence that he has a strong affinity and ability to work within the verse-chorus-verse mold of pop and rock n’roll.
For as much as Three follows in the traditions of its immediate predecessors, Four yearns to break away from them. The three-track offering is arguably one of the finest in the still-growing tour diary set, if not the most fully realized. The EP-opening “Long May You Burn” is a lost Motown gem, with Pajo offering a simply addictive bounce of guitar, bass, and drums that just drips of early soul and doo-wop. While the track highlights Pajo’s growing prowess as a lyricist (a notable line talks about how a firefly learns to burn bright by studying the stars at night), it also tackles the themes of love and budding relationships oft linked with the genre.
Just when you think Papa M has converted to the ways of a Detroit hit-making machine, Pajo unleashes a scorching guitar solo that could make Hendrix put down the lighter fluid and take notice. As per usual, he pulls off the moment with ease and manages to convince you that, you know, wild and psychedelic guitar solos were an indispensable ingredient in The Supremes mix.
“Long May You Burn” dissolves into “Red Curtains,” where folksy, mountain banjo strumming gets laid right on top of Pajo’s smoky whisper of a voice and a deep, lingering keyboard wash. After two short minutes, the third track begins, with the keyboard wash still resonating. The final part of what is almost one long song is a full-band pop tune reminiscent of Three‘s “Who Knows.”
On “Local Boy Makes Good,” Pajo lays down his usual combinations of guitar, bass and drums while a high-pitched guitar solo constantly lurks in the background. What’s also buried lower in the mix than you’d imagine are a series of lines that are oddly direct for Pajo, and may have one guessing why “Local Boy Makes Good” was recorded in his native Louisville. “I see your skin right through your veil / Your hand, your face agree to tell,” Pajo sings (or seems to sing … again, they’re low in the mix), just before a mounting explosion from the electric guitar. “You’re counterfeit, don’t give a shit / Your clothes don’t fit, you hypocrite.”
The song then redefines itself as an instrumental descent of sorts, with drums and various guitars all crashing into each other and forcing the listener to divert attention from one leading element to the next. Again, not so oddly enough, Pajo pulls it all off while making it sound easy and still leaving the listener guessing.
Bottom line. If after Four, your mouth isn’t watering for another full-length player from the M stable, well, you’re just not paying attention.