Rumpus Sound Takes: Spectra in the Walls


Space Homestead

The opening track on MV & EE’s recent LP, Space Homestead, is a lovely, spacy instrumental called “Heart Like Barbara Steele.” It’s like something your massage therapist would put on before dimming the lights and telling you to undress and lie face down, except it has a barely perceptible thread of deep, menacing bass that makes it feel as though it’s surrounded by danger, like its namesake. It sets the undertones for the rest of the album. The second number sets the tone: It moseys in like an organic farm hand on peyote—a nice, reliable guy whose job it is to build cozy, odd-shaped song structures. It’s called “Workingman’s Smile.” The obvious reference is Merle Haggard by way of the Grateful Dead, but it owes more to Neil Young. It’s got that lopsided strum-and-finger-pick feel to it. You can even hear old Neil in the high-range singing by Matt Valentine, and the swells of harmonica that rise later on in the album. It might even be true that the title Space Homestead is a nod to a couple of back-to-back songs on side one of Hawks & Doves; in interviews, Valentine has been open about his admiration of the Canadian (he even named his dog Zuma). But even if that’s true, there isn’t a single Neil Young record as psychedelic as this one.

MV & EE is Valentine and Erika Elder, a couple who live in the boonies of Vermont and make fabulous music. Their sound is wide-ranging—from folk to ragas to fuzzed-out acid rock—and all of those modes and more play into this album. Valentine and Elder are also the nexus of a nebulous scene. They’ve been making music together for at least a dozen years, and Valentine was spinning sounds long before that, as part of a collective known as Tower Recordings. Many musicians have played with them over the years, and have been inspired by them, too. Quite a few of these friends play on this record, which was recorded in a bunch of different home studios with names like Buttermilk Falls, Maximum Arousal Farm and Inner Mountain, places dedicated freaks of their scene will recognize as homesteads of musicians like Jeremy Earl of Woods. Earl, who released the album on his label, Woodsist, is credited on more than half of the songs (playing drums and singing, mostly), and other guests include Matt Lajoie of Herbcraft, and J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., who goes crazy on the drums in the final track, “Porchlight > Leaves.”

So Space Homestead is a real communal effort, and that’s reflected in the loose, spontaneous feel of the songs and sounds. At times you can almost see the players crowded into a living room, surrounded by amps with wires running all around, late into the night, candles burned all the way down. But the music here never feels haphazard. Every note, every weird sound, is tucked in exactly where Valentine and Elder want it to be. Valentine is a master studio technician, even when there is no studio. He’s developed a technique called Spectrasound that “places tones dancing all around the stereo sound field,” according to a blurb I found online. I emailed Valentine to ask how he did it, explaining to him that at one point on the album I hear an odd-counter rhythm that sounds like it’s coming from somewhere on the opposite side of the room from the speakers, as if someone outside is knocking where there is no door. He wouldn’t explain his technique, except to say, “that’s spectra in the walls.” Fair enough. Whatever the method, it’s a perfect means of joining the tone and undertones of this album—the good old Americana guitar-bass-and-drum melodies and the beautiful-and-sometimes-scary trippiness that floats through them.

Joe Miller is the author of Cross-X, winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Award and the Harry Chapin Media Award in 2007. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Salon, New Letters, Pleiades and Decomp. He's an assistant professor of writing at Columbus State University in Georgia. More from this author →