There are two ways of wading through the world of rural American song-poets Matt Valentine and Erika Elder. There’s the light skim, where you take in their “key” albums for labels like Ecstatic Peace!, Three Lobed and Woodsist, where they come as close as they can to distilling the essence of their loose, sweet songs. Or you can go the heavy road, drinking in all their live CD-Rs, their recent eight-disc sets documenting recent tours, one-off tapes and micro-released albums on their own Child Of Microtones imprint. Either way round — and I’m coming at it from the latter approach, because there’s always something to learn from their wild and weird live recordings — at a certain point, the penny drops: there are very few artists out there creating such a rich body of peri-urban popular folk-song as MV & EE.
Coming at Space Homestead after heavy lifting with the recent Suub Duub live box, the first thing that hits you is the heightened articulacy of the group’s arrangements, which somehow stand out amid the blissfully languid performances. There are plenty of beautiful MV & EE songs out there, but very few quite as weightless and hallucinatory as “Moment,” where Valentines’s falsetto melts into Elder’s dream-sigh, buoys bobbing in an estuary of reverb for two criminally short minutes, while guitar and piano play a lover’s retreat, easy and gentle. The first half of Space Homestead feels almost uncommonly beatific and becalmed, the group playing through a haze of smoke, with Valentine and Elder’s voices sitting somewhere between an unforced drawl and soft susurration.
The second side of the record hits heavier. “Too Far To See” starts drowsy, swimming out on a tide of slide guitar, but about 90 seconds in, the song cuts to a more tense and fervid pace, as though David Crosby and his gang got all uptight during the recording of “Laughing.” When you reach the closing “Porchlight,” MV & EE finally surrender the reins to their more extended side, with what sounds like live recordings, carved up, exposed to the elements, and then bolted on to the front of a particularly weightless chunk of meandering blues, close to perhaps MV & EE’s clearest predecessors, the great Souled American. But it’s the preceding “Wasteland” that hits hardest, gifted with a graceful, slow, countrified gait, Elder and Valentine singing in unison over chord changes that seem to pull the ground out from underneath your feet, leaving you suspended mid-air and happy with it, before a fuzz-tone guitar solo carves firework shapes through the clouds. It’s another in a long line of seductive drift-songs from this most wise, peripatetic and yet enigmatic duo.