Considering the circumstances, Papa M’s latest is an unexpectedly unburdened record.
Given the severity of certain events in David Pajo’s life over the past couple of years, it is worth stating the obvious, that we’re fortunate to have Highway Songs at all. Considering the circumstances, it's an unexpectedly easy going and unburdened record.
There couldn’t be a much more appropriate title for this addition to the catalog of one of the most distinguished journeymen in post-rock. Highway Songs comes roughly 25 years after Slint’s Spiderland and 20 years after Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die, two landmark albums that Pajo was central to. One year after Millions came the release of Aerial M with its sweetly whispering spiral instrumentals, the first stretch of a winding road of solo albums and creative identity adjustments from Aerial M to Papa M to Pajo. In the midst of it all, he also joined Billy Corgan for his post-Smashing Pumpkins band, Zwan, and he has also played with Stereolab, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and others.
Highway Songs may not have been intended as a curriculum vitae, but from the first song, as “Flatliners” starts the album in Tweez-like fashion with heavy instrumental riffing, the notion presents itself. If a step slower than the pace of that Slint debut, nonetheless when the guitars pierce it seems like he went to the trouble of digging the original distortion pedals out of storage. As opening tracks go, it is also misleading, but there’s no song here that wouldn’t be misleading in the same position.
Whichever iteration of Pajo’s music you might be looking for, you will find it here, just not in abundance. Highway Songs has little interest in arriving at a honed identity, and at this point in his travels, where change has been one of the only constants, it isn’t certain that one would suit. Pajo's decision to revive the Papa M moniker came after playing shows under it in 2011, and was driven at least partly because it fit with his renewed interest in making instrumental music, which had been the primary mode for Papa M (and Aerial M before it) up until the folk turn of Papa M Sings and Whatever, Mortal.
The sepia sprawl of Live from a Shark Cage, the signature Papa M record for some, does feel closer to the heart of Highway Songs than it has on much of Pajo’s music between then and now, but it doesn’t return to that form as much as it absorbs the memory of it. Pretty much the only thing “Green Holler” here shares with Shark Cage’s “Pink Holler” is its creator and his particular titling habits. That said, there is a similar, touching fragility to Highway Songs -- one that is more keenly felt in its abrasive passages, while the gentle moments like “DLVD” and “Walking on Coronado” are the most assured.