(Drag City; 2005)

By Scott Reid | 3 August 2005

It's funny that this would be the first record to bear David Pajo's name. The man spends the late '80s/'90s with respected post-rock pioneers (Slint, Tortoise), then redefines himself as a solo artist, eventually going completely folk with Whatever, Mortal. After that record, he'd release --- outside of helping Billy Corgan shit out Zwan --- only singles for a couple of years: six total between '03 and '04. His last full-length was 2004's Hole of Burning Alm, a collection of singles from '95-'00. And yet, for all of his projects and nostalgia, for all the countless releases, he decides to finally put his name on a folk-pop album recorded entirely through cheap soundcard equipment/software and a $10 microphone?

It's not hard to appreciate Pajo attempting to put issues of production aside to focus on his songwriting (something that continued on all six singles in '03/'04, to varying degrees), but the tinny, noisey/flangey/hurtful sound that's shellacked on in cheap 16 bit hinders some of the best material he's written to date. Just how good is this "best material?" At points better than large parts of Mortal (some exceptions), better than the stunning opening trio of Live from a Shark's Cage, better than almost everything from the single series. He just doesn't make it easy to recognize it as such.

It shouldn't be that surprising to find out he's still good enough a songwriter to overcome the imposed handicaps, but the question still lingers: why bother? What is the point of Pajo's production? I'd love to say that the gimmick somehow plays into his long-standing obsession with lo-fi recording, but really it's just annoying and unnecessary, brandishing the deficits of lo-fi indie-(genre) without the muddled warmth of analog. Dude's a producer, he doesn't have a decent compressor to throw into the mix? Simple EQ? A microphone > $10? Anything?

So he's stubborn, but like I said, he's still a great songwriter. He opens the record like a sedated Sean Lennon, layering (surprisingly) giddy vocal melodies over simpler guitar progressions than Shark's Cage and Mortal would have us expecting. While the cheap-o computer microphone adds a dreamy wisp to his voice (see also: how he sounds mechanical on "War is Dead," and how "Icicles" and "Ten More Days" eerily conjure Elliott Smith), "High Lonesome Moan's" arrangement, like "Oh No No" and most other tracks, sounds thin; the guitar is sharp, his voice wallowing in mid-range.

But lets say that the production doesn't bother you, that you have a thing for sharp tones and superfluous noise. If the easiest target of the record is ignored, where does this fit into the Pajo canon? Surprisingly high, all things considered. It's a logical extension of his song-oriented Papa M releases, equally as varied an album as Mortal, in fact. "Manson Twins," "Mary of the Wild Moor" and "Let Me Bleed" fall closest to his usual Cohenesque folk, but elsewhere the record expands into new territory for Pajo. From "War is Dead's" chugging Nebraska-ish riff to the dense-but-restrained retro-rock of "Baby Please Come Home" (do this in a proper studio, imagine the possibilities) and the spoken word black-hole "Francie," Pajo is a potentially incredible record that, for reasons already beaten to death, never really allows itself to get that far.

To his credit, some of the instrumental arrangements sound great even after being digitally processed through cheap software and microphones, perhaps accomplishing the kind of "see, you don't need real equipment if you can write a song" point Pajo set out to make. Besides, outside of the nagging sense of "it didn't need to be this way," Pajo is by almost every account a solid record: it's well written, eerily sung with inventive arrangements and memorable lyrics. Pajo fans can look at this record from nearly any angle and agree it's a promising, hook-oriented step forward (in most respects, at least) from Mortal. A sign of things to come? It's hard not to hope so. Still a shittily produced album that's hard to listen to? Unfortunately, yeah.