[26 January 2009]
Matt Valentine and Erika Elder are MV & EE, and they’ve been kicking out their “lunar ragas” from the woods of Vermont for a while now. Drone Trailer sees a move from Ecstatic Peace to DiCristina and a slightly raised profile, but the group’s as obtusely spectral here, with their mates the Golden Road, as they’ve ever been.
These hippie stylings might otherwise mask what must be a pretty rock-solid work ethic—individually and together, Valentine and Elder have been involved with numerous music and otherwise creative efforts through their own label and Elder’s MV & EE Medicine Show. Don’t forget, these are talented musicians, not just possessed of some amateur smoke-inspired creativity. The duo’s played with Thurston Moore, Devendra Banhardt, and many others. Elder’s latest project is a collaboration with ace guitarist Nels Cline on a series of covers of John Fahey songs. Valentine writes fiction published through small, limited-run pressings. Sorting out all this personal mythology and output can be rather daunting, but it’s no obstacle to approach of the music itself—shuffling between folk and prog, Drone Trailer presents a heady blend of that old stoner sound.
Not that the group’s into accessibility. The six tracks on the album average around six or seven minutes, and there’s little by way of melody to hook teeth initially. Things get easier—“Drone Trailer”, about halfway through the album, is a relaxed country ballad with only the slight hint of cosmological journeying—but not at the outset. After a blown-through Led Zeppelin opening, all wriggling strands of prog guitar, we soon arrive at “Weatherhead Hollow”. The ten-and-a-half-minute epic’s the centerpiece of the album, though it’s also hardly there. Spaces between swells of guitar and cymbal seem, at first, vast. Call it jam time, though there’s something else going on here: as the song progresses, the spaces contract, texture thickens, and a climax of sorts (albeit a smoked-to-the-point-of-near-paralysis one) is eventually reached.
The contrast between Valentine and Elder’s vocal style contributes a certain tension to Drone Trailer. Valentine, singing in a boyish tenor, is so smooth and light that he’s barely there. He’s the epitome of the gentle hippie, singing near-nonsense (“There’s a season somewhere where I’m feeling / So very funny”). In contrast, Elder is both more mainstream and more out of it; her voice has a drunken, slurred delivery that can be quite fascinating to listen to. But as often as they let her sing freely, they’re purposefully denying the melodic impulse. This strategy, exemplified on the obtuse jam “Twitchin’”, is less successful. The warbling recitative has neither the weight nor the meaning to match an otherwise serene, confluent song. Instead, MV & EE’s no doubt free-spirited lyrical explorations come off as hopelessly out of touch with what can be a gorgeously unhinged accompaniment.
As the group soars off into the cosmos, you’re not really left with an urgent wish to join them. MV & EE can play, but their washed-out psychedelica generally requires you to be on the same plane as they in order to gain full appreciation. Most of the time, it sounds like they’re already halfway to the heavens.