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Published: 2004/03/30
by Chris Gardner

Hole of Burning Alms – Papa M

Drag City

Dave Pajo has done his fair share to launch and shape the post-rock
movement. He honed the touchstone with Slint’s Spiderland, and
created the blueprint in 1996 with Tortoise’s _Millions Now Living Will
Never Die_. On the side, he served time in Billy Corgan’s short-lived
Zwan, helped out long-time buddy Will Oldham, and tinkered with Scotland’s
Mogwai. Independently, he recorded a spate of solo or nearly-solo albums
under various monikers: M, Aerial M, M is the thirteenth Letter, and most
notably Papa M. With the album at hand, Drag City collects scattered
singles from Pajo’s various labels and incarnations and attempts to give
some shape to his eclectic and influential career. While connections
might be drawn between these mostly instrumental pieces and the post-rock
movement Pajo helped mold, Hole of Burning Alms evinces an organic
simplicity that may initially seem at odds with pieces of his back

The first three tracks introduce Pajo’s greatest strengths, his strong sense of space and silence and his inclination to let the music unfold slowly. A single crack of a snare deserves its space. Notes are allowed to run their course – bass notes blooming into silence, guitars chiming into darkness. Pajo adopts a ponderous, almost lumbering stride through these early takes, planting each note seed-by-seed with gravity and careful intention. These ostensibly simple figures unwind at their own pace, slowly revealing a depth behind the simplicity, an intricacy in the shading of the notes. The unadorned production follows suit, capturing things as they are, the bass notes even rattling the inactive snare during the fallout of "Wedding No. 3." The new instrumentation of "Mountains Have Ears" (keys, blips and bloops, flute sounds panning this way and that) would seem like a departure if Pajo didn’t approach the music with the same revelatory patience. The real shifts begin with the psychedelic washes emerging from the interstitial silence succeeding "Vivea." Much of the previous attitude pervades, but the sense of time is loose, drifting. It leads into Pajo’s disarmingly gentle take on the Misfits’ brutal "Last Caress." Bird chirps and a delicately-plucked acoustic guitar underpin the whispered, "I got something to say/ I raped your mother today." It’s a wry and creepy beauty of a tune and more than a little disturbing. The unrepentant infanticide and rape scenes here are disturbing whether it is Glenn Danzig growling it at you or the gruff-voiced James Hetfield blasting at you, but it is creepiest when Pajo whispers it sweetly. In many ways, the thirteen-plus minute "Travels In Constants" on its heels paints the full canvas. It begins with a lullaby, launches into burbling and aggressive electronic beats which fade after four minutes, giving way to a hushed, effected electric guitar. For several minutes, Pajo hovers timelessly. It sounds like water squeezed about in a bubble, like the more liquid sections of Hendrix’s "One Rainy Wish" or "Waterfall" under a droning organ. It, too, fades into cricket chirps and muffled dog barks, which are soon joined by a plucked acoustic guitar and barely audible vocals. All fades but the crickets, the dogs, and a muffled conversation in the distance. Though disparate, the parts congeal in part because they all demonstrate his patience, in part because they are framed by crickets and thus develop the sense of place, and in part because they are all the work of an artist who seems to know what he intends.

Above all, Pajo seems to have purpose. Not all of the music here is
gripping, but it doesn’t all try to be. The focus is rather on saying
something simple and saying it well, all of which comes quite naturally to
Pajo, so naturally in fact that even the indulgent, improvised
instrumental take on "Turn, Turn, Turn" (which cuts to a close as the tape
runs out somewhere beyond the sixteen minute mark) doesn’t get stale. It
never peaks, never squeals, never demands attention; it runs smoothly and
unassumingly along, eliciting attention gradually as Pajo winds around the
melody, elaborates ideas, and explores the cavernous spaces within a
melody at his leisure. It’s an approach that peeks its head up in his
other projects, an attention to detail that serves him well in all his
work, but perhaps shows itself best here.

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