Is it too late to revise all those best-of-'99 lists? Surely anyone with two ears, a brain and a heart will slide this to the top if made aware of its compelling, and tantalizingly mysterious, tableaux of primary colors and thatched shadings. Papa M's quasi-"debut" appeared in the bins without fanfare late last year, and the average harried consumer would be forgiven for overlooking the CD (or on vinyl, double LP). After all, Papa M's David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise, Palace, For Carnation) doesn't list his name anywhere on the sleeve, and while the record is technically Pajo's third (or more, if you count singles) solo release, including a '97 full-length and a subsequent remix disc, his indulgence of shifting monikers, from M to Aerial M to the current usage, practically guarantees multiple, frustrating music-store filings.
Still, as with most of the Chicago-Louisville creative players, part of the pleasure is having to continually make revisions on your scorecard, as the extended musical family tree has enough craggy twists, breakages and parallel forks to confound even the most seasoned researcher. Pajo even ups this particular ante in the press kit accompanying the release: Hilariously, he and Drag City manipulated the text of the otherwise faithfully reproduced record reviews in the kit, altering every single reference -- in the reviews' original fonts, no less -- to his previous bands and/or recorded efforts, replacing them with such seminal, postrocking and altogether fake groups as the Genital Warts (Smells Like Shit in Here) and the Shit Fucks (ShitFuckland). So much for flogging that impressive résumé, eh, Dave?
Pajo, it seems, intends to focus your attention on the music, not the personality, a trait he no doubt picked up from the equally elusive Will Oldham. Which, it must be said, does indeed serve the man's artistry. Unhurried and reserved to a fault, yet imbued with a neoclassicist's sense of internally logical grace and implied grandeur, Shark Cage is an evocative wonder. Totally instrumental, save one modestly strummed track containing layered-in answering machine messages, this gentle recording proceeds forth like minimalist cinema for the mind.
Its first number, "Arundel," an introductory one-minute set of reverberating/echoing Fahey-like guitar tones, is reprised at album's end, that version taking those exact same tones and elaborating upon them deftly and delicately for four and a half minutes -- the Papa M opening and closing theme, in other words, framing the score's exposition. Yes, there are definite scenes on view here. "Up North Kids" (one of the few tunes here featuring drums, its sweet melody is uncannily reminiscent of Godley & Creme's lush classic "Cry") has the aura of a westward-ho wagon-train journey. "Roadrunner," whose guitar/synth/vibraphone melody is geared toward forward motion and whose rhythmic bias is additionally cyclical, offers another mental travelogue.
Even the most unadorned track, the 15-minute "I Am Not Lonely With Cricket" (recorded in London with Stereolab's Tim Gane), has an undeniable visual aspect to it. With just the simplest of two recurring fretboard riffs, Pajo conjures the title's insect imagery; by repeating the riffs in different octaves (as well as with harmonics) over and over, the layered song is transported to a rural pasture, the growing chorus of smiling, chuckling, celebrating crickets turning into a joyous celebration.
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Should a bold filmmaker take the leap of faith and set film to Pajo's music, as opposed to the traditional other way around, Shark Cage will earn its proper aboveground acclaim. Until then, Pajo should know that he's already an award-deserving auteur in his own right.