Artist: MV & EE
Album: Space Homestead
MV & EE can’t seem to sit still long enough to enjoy the fruits of their prolific labors. As attested to by their close to 30 releases in the last ten years, they bounce around from cosmic-folk to classic rock noodling to whatever else they want to play with the same attention to detail, though not always with an ear toward narrative or musical cohesion. It seems at times as though they are almost daring the listener to keep track of all their albums and branches into different genres. From the easy-going folk/blues ruminations on Green Blues to the fractured freak folk meandering on Drone Trailer, the very act of trying to pin down their sound can become a daunting and sometimes ineffectual chore. They managed to bring some of that missing emotional heft and musical structure to their last record Country Stash but it still felt to varying degrees like they were trying to recapture that ramshackle earnestness of their earlier records. And when rumors of a new MV & EE album started circulating earlier this year, it seemed less a surprise and more a hope that they might be able to put their ideas together cohesively once again.
But thinking back on their output, cohesiveness was never really one of their strong points. It seemed only a keystone upon which to begin the deconstruction of their sound. These simple building block archetypes—blues, rock, folk—were merely the broadest of canvases MV & EE, Matt Valentine and Erika Elder, used to display their own splintered takes on these canonized genres. And while their attempts were not always successful, they were rarely less than interesting. And so we come to Space Homestead, their new record and an honest, if not altogether successful, attempt to reclaim their old ways.
“Heart Like Barbara Steele” opens the album with a short, atmospheric instrumental that despite its runtime manages to successfully develop its own identity among the longer tracks on the album. The repetitive drone which stretches across its length brings to mind the echo and barren loneliness of space. In contrast, there are songs like “Sweet Sure Gone” and “Moment” which bring a warm immediacy and narrative focus to the album that belies its opening track mentality. Space Homestead deals with the idea of looking inward and outward, of trying to find our place in this world, a home, or striking out and finding someplace new. MV & EE have questions regarding the ability of people to connect with that feeling of home and of peacefulness, but they do seem to conclude that it’s possible, though only through hard work and a stripping-away of unnecessary things. This particular idea is most directly manifested on “Shit’s Creek”, where the instrumentation itself seems to be on the verge of falling apart, of deconstructing before our eyes and ears. It feels so ramshackle, so unorganized, that it develops its own sort of odd fascination for the listener. But here is also where the record starts to show its seams a bit. For all its attention to detail, you can only hear this kind of purposely discordant music for so long before you want something more substantive and recognizable to dig into. A disconnect develops between the artist and audience when this kind of artifice, no matter how artfully executed, is used. This disconnect continues to a lesser degree on “Porchlight > Leaves” where the drone and repetition threaten to overwhelm the character and mood of the song. There might be an interesting melody and arrangement here somewhere but it’s covered over by an ever present distortion and haziness.
Other tracks that fare better, like “Workingman’s Smile”, “Common Ground”, “Wasteland”, and “Too Far To See”, use a seemingly homespun earnestness to their advantage. There is more than a little touch of The Band and CSN&Y on these tracks, and the same shambling rootsy-ness that was so at ease in those bands infuse these songs will a playful humbleness that befits their execution and influence, though “Too Far To See” throws in a good deal of distortion and reverb to highlight the effectiveness of each in creating a very specific mood. The drone-ier aspects of this album meld surprisingly well with the more roots rock sound that come across on some of these songs. The almost ethereal sound that comes from this match-up seems to be exactly what MV & EE were looking to sustain over the full album but are only partially successful in doing. But what works here, works well and what doesn’t…well, it’s worth a listen at the very least.
While Space Homestead may not be quite the return-to-form of say Green Blues or Suncatcher Mountain, it shows that they haven’t given up on trying to perfect their own wonderfully strange version of American folk. And if this album is seen as just another minor step in their artistic arc, that’s okay too. We’ll probably have another album from them by the end of the year and another chance to see if they can continue their ascent. Because to be honest, I’m not sure if they know how to stand still, much less stop making music. It seems to be an integral aspect of the band, this constant movement, and while it might not always be entirely successful, it will always be worth hearing. After 30 odd albums in 10 years, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned that.
written by Joshua Pickard