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By necessity, any conversation about the music of Matt Valentine (MV) and Erika Elder (EE) is eventually going to touch on their prolific output. The Vermont duo's constant production has simply become one of its defining facts. In addition to a steady stream of studio albums for Ecstatic Peace!, MV & EE have continued to release small-batch recordings on their own Child of Microtones label, including a Dick's Picks-style series of live recordings on the offshoot Heroine Celestial Agriculture subsidiary.
Over the course of this massive discography, MV & EE's music has ranged through overlapping regions of pastoral psych-folk, cosmic country and blues, and expansive, Crazy Horse-inspired guitar jams that occasionally cozy up against what was once known as grunge. As with many such prolific acts, the duo's work can strike a balance between the deeply rewarding and the exasperating, as each listener is bound to choose a favorite from among the different aspects of their sound. When fatigue sets in, there seems to be little harm in sitting out a few albums and waiting for them to cycle back around again.
MV & EE have now rewarded such patience with two fine new studio albums, Country Stash and What I Became, the latter of which is nominally a Matt Valentine solo album. On each album, the musicians have drawn in the fences just enough to sharpen their focus on a specific portion of their overall sound. Longtime fans will find much to savor on both albums, or, failing that, will almost certainly fall heavily for one or the other.
It might sound strange to call an album that features multiple nine-plus-minute jams "restrained," but that nevertheless is how Country Stash can feel. Despite the extended guitar solos, the album is one of MV & EE's most tuneful and song-oriented collections to date, and their most immediately likable since 2006's Green Blues. Not too surprisingly, the duo has found a kindred spirit in Woods' Jeremy Earl, who contributes harmony vocals on "Foxy One" and "Crash Palace of Records". And though MV & EE have never been prone to creating the type of melodic hooks that actually prove hummable, both of these tracks have the amiable spirit and loose-limbed energy that are familiar features on Woods records.
MV & EE's albums have frequently benefitted from guest appearances, including such notables as J Mascis and Sunburned Hand of the Man's John Moloney. Country Stash features perhaps their most unlikely collaborator yet in Andy Ramsay, best known for his work with Stereolab and the High Llamas. Ramsay's high-precision style seems a counterintuitive match for MV & EE's improvisational wandering. But the pairing works surprisingly well, with Ramsay providing atmospheric electronics, percussion, and production for "Tea Devil" and "No There, There". "Tea Devil", which has appeared on at least one previous MV & EE release in a different form, is here rendered with a brooding, ominous pulse, as Elder delivers a smoldering vocal performance to craft an instant highlight in the group's catalog.
Matt Valentine takes a largely different approach on What I Became. The album's solo billing is a little misleading: Elder contributes vocals to one track and Jeremy Earl adds percussion in several places, while throughout MV applies a delicate lacing of acoustic and electric guitar overdubs. In other words, this release doesn't seem that different from a proper MV & EE album, and it achieves a sound that is more introspective than solitary.
It is, however, one of Valentine's more folk-oriented albums in a good while, and it should be a welcome sight for those who've been missing that side of his playing. On refreshing opener "Continuing the Good Life", Valentine offers a reminder of what an expert acoustic picker he can be. On such tracks as "PK Dick" or "Ave. B", the electric and acoustic instruments seem to descend upon the same spot from opposite directions, illuminating the songs in hazy silhouette. Valentine's effects-heavy vocals tend to shy from the spotlight without Elder there for assistance; his voice often seems there as much to provide an atmospheric backdrop as to deliver his whispery lyrics.
Both albums have been issued in nice-looking vinyl editions, which is fitting. For as many cassettes and CD-Rs as MV & EE have released, the immersive qualities of vinyl make it a natural format for the duo. Pressed in limited runs, these albums might prove a little more difficult to track down, but by now MV & EE fans should be used to exercising patience.