on 11 March 2006
I bought this album based on the fact that I knew Pajo's work with Tortoise, and also because the cover art, with it's panorama of a desolate landscape, seemed to promise something sonically expansive: let me first make it clear that the album flew in the face of any such assumptions: the work is nothing like Tortoise, is largely acoustic, and in fact bears more in common with bands like The Shins or Sparklehorse.
The production is lo-fi to say the least, and it is really no surprise that Pajo recorded the entire album on a laptop computer: vocals, beats, the lot. Although it sounds cliche, the production really does lend the music an intimacy that otherwise might not be matched by spotless production values, and it is seldom that you get the impression that the artist is being limited by cloth he has cut.
Although dominated by acoustic guitar, this is not one of those artist-centred acoustic albums, where each song seems a soap box for the speaker to brow-beat the listener to tears. Each song is distinguished, in some way, by Pajo's assured musical touch: for instance, 'Let Me Bleed' features some phased-out, shimmering accompanying guitar, whilst 'Mary of the Wild Moor' features a tasteful delayed guitar melody, intervening at the end of each verse. The music also effortlessly takes on a variety of acoustic styles, as on the evocative 'Manson Twins' Pajo attaches a strangely sonorous vocal to an understated country ballad; yet Pajo is more inspired by his influences than led by them, underneath the music there is a distinct personality that lifts it above imitation, as in the song's middle-eight, the tempo shifts up into the trees and the sunlight: it is the albums highlight.
The album is not without weaknesses, however. Pajo's whispery vocals, over the course of an album, go a long way to explaining why much of his work has been instrumental to date. It wears thin after a while, and on the repetitive, two-note riff of 'War is Dead', is noticeably impoverished; Pajo just doesn't have the range to manoeuvre around the simple structure and turn a sow's ear into the proverbial purse like a confident singer-songwriter would - we get the impression of a writer living on his wits, at times: thankfully, the upbeat and lilting strummalong of 'baby please come home' allows Pajo to recover his poise and the albums pace.
However, at times Pajo's dreamy mood seems a little too contented with it's own indifference, and the sing-song nature of his delivery hints that the album may be turning towards one of those cutesy, quirky albums that drift pleasantly but are ultimately more satisfying to the solipsistic artist. Mindful of this, the album achieves a startling and moving ballad in 'Mary of the wild moor' that is both lyrically and musically affecting.
Telling a simple pastoral tragedy above a plucked acoustic guitar, Pajo's previously distant and often unintelligible voice is brought higher up in the mix, so that his presence is almost tangible; in the same way, the acoustic guitar, creaks and all, is as spartan as the cold moor. Telling the tale almost reluctantly, Pajo's voice is tender and nervous to the point of tears: it is an intensely bare and moving piece of music. It just is. It is amazing how an unoriginal generic sounding song can in Pajo's hands be vivified in this way.
‘Let Me Bleed’ transports Pajo from the Yorkshire moors to some lofty hotel room where he can stare out at the city nightlife and expound his cynicism on it all; brilliantly arranged with glittering effects and sub-aqua guitar chords, Pajo swims contentedly in his own bile, speaking in tones so hushed, you feel he’s afraid someone will hear him and take notice. The music is simple but has a ceiling of glittering stars, showering down on the disillusioned artist; it is undoubtedly a highlight here, continuing a strong end to the album.
‘Francie’ is musically in opposition to the rest of the album, developing an ambient dreamscape similar to some of ‘Voyager 36’ by Porcupine Tree, complete with a spoken word by a prophetic voice, and underpinned by a smooth, melodic bass. With all the shiftings of environment, from the moors to the city, to the american country, we are left facing the stars, seemingly floating in the air as the formless, distorted guitar chords fade out. Pajo has effected an album of modern dislocation, of jumping into different acoustic styles that don't hold expectations of him, the final feeling is one of freedom. I sense this was a hugely liberating album for Pajo; that feeling is not lost on the listener, either.