Friday, August 5, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Matt "MV" Valentine

I know you’re not supposed to judge a record by its cover, but the second I saw Matt Valentine’s What I Became I knew it was something I would own and love. What I didn’t know was that it would be first glittering jewel in a treasure trove of music that’ll likely take me years and lots of money to collect.

The cover itself is pretty simple: A picture of a longhaired, long-bearded guy who is leaning against an old Honda Civic and smiling like he totally loves his life. In the background there’s a big country barn-style house and a guy hunched down on the ground, going over a director’s chair with an electric sander. It’s obviously summertime in the picture, and tall trees tower all around. In other words, it screams “hippy,” and you know the music is going to be mellow or freaky or both, which, for my ears, is a good thing. The latter is the case here. The album’s seven tracks meander from folksy acoustic guitar strumming to cosmic synthesizer echoes to the infinite array of warbles and fuzz tones that a daisy chain of foot pedals can squeeze out of an electric guitar, with a few pinches of sitar and hand drums thrown in to make it a little more exotic. If I were to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s like something Neil Young might have made if he’d toured with Sonic Youth in 1974, after On the Beach, and if the tour had included a run through India and Nepal, and if Sonic Youth had been forced to meditate a lot. The songs are all songs; it’s not a free-form record, there are singing and inviting melodies, but all the songs tend to unravel at various points into blissful free-formed-ness.

One of the best things about the record is it comes with a full-color insert that’s covered with snapshots of Valentine and his wife (or life partner) Erika Elder, their dog and a few of their friends, and it’s clear from the photos that they have a life worth dying for. They appear to live in the country, judging from the images of barns and open spaces, and it looks like they just make music and art all the time. So I went poking around online and I learned that Valentine is the MV part of MV + EE, a two-person band that he’s in with Elder (EE). And they’ve been making music since the 1990s, starting out in New York with a band called Tower Recordings. Sometime around the turn of the millennium they abandoned the city for rural Vermont, where they’ve produced an extraordinary amount of music together, solo, and with a revolving cast of musicians such as J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and bands with names like Bummer Road, The Golden Road and the MV + EE Medicine show. We’re talking tons and tons of stuff – LPs, 7” singles, cassettes, CDRs – on dozens of different small labels, including Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace. They even have their own Dick’s Picks-style series of live recordings called Heroine Celestial Agriculture Records.

Since picking up What I Became, I’ve added several MV + EE albums to my collection, and I’m really impressed with the range of sounds. Drone Trailer, by MV + EE and the Golden Road, is song-oriented like Valentine’s recent solo release, but with a bit more harmonica, while The MV + EE Medicine Show’s The Uranium Ray is mostly instrumental and very far out, while Ragas from the Culvert by plain old MV + EE is basically Indian music on acid, with veils of sitar strands wafting through a haze of electro-cosmic sounds. Among them all, though, Valentine’s new solo release stands the strongest. It conveys a level of confidence and cohesion that takes artists years and years to find, and I’m glad I got it first, because now as I collect every MV + EE related thing I can find I’ll be able to see how he became what he became.

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