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The Golden Road 

Pioneering freak-folkers Matt Valentine and Erika Elder

Wednesday, Feb 14 2007
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A few years ago, slightly lost in Williamsburg, Va., I went through an unmarked door and into a stranger's living room for an intimate performance by ex-members of early '90s noise/folk/psych act Tower Recordings, guitarist Matt Valentine and his paramour in crime, Erika Elder. Settled on a couch, this small concert was a sensation akin to Alice falling down a rabbit hole. The pair played on 12-string guitar, autoharp, and a slew of other stringed curios, an array of old analog effects capturing their strums and plucks and distending them, creating an infinite sound that filled the living space with rapturous, relaxed music.

Shortly thereafter, the couple moved from the Lower East Side into rural Vermont, where their cottage industry of burning microbatch editions of home-recorded CDRs on their Child of Microtones imprint took off. If you knew under which rock to look, or else you responded to the catalog listings at such underground record distros as Time-Lag in Portland, Maine, or Eclipse Records in Bullhead City, Ariz., in time, you may have found some of these "edition of 99" releases such as Lunar Blues, Ragantula, or I Burned One With God, But Cocola if I'm Peaking Which Way Is the Sky? These packages sported stamped CD faces, booklets full of gorgeous hand-lettering, and a collaged design that by turns suggests '50s beat broadsides, 19th-century children's fairy tales, '70s-era poetry chapbooks, Civil WarÐera advertisements, and other dislocated ephemera from lost eras.

The music itself was loosed from time as well. Valentine and Elder were comfortable with old blues standards like "Freight Train," "Who Do You Love," "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," and "Death Don't Have No Mercy" as well as the more cosmic renderings done by such diverse '60s West Coast acts as John Fahey, Canned Heat, the Charlatans, and the Grateful Dead. When they weren't spacing out on American standards, they were creating melds of instrumental string music that not only reached back into our country's past, but also laterally embraced classical Indian music, French musique concrète, electronic ambient, and Jamaican dub reggae.

Slowly, the couple began to incorporate their friends and neighbors in Brattleboro, Vt., into the proceedings, dubbing themselves alternately the MV&EE Medicine Show, MV Holoscanner Exhibition, or The Bummer Road. Bandmates included anyone from exÐBoston punk legend Dredd Foole to free jazz drummer Chris Corsano, to Time-Lag labelhead Nemo Bidstrup, to their dog, Zuma. Now, with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore reviving his Ecstatic Peace! imprint and receiving support from Universal, Valentine and Elder are releasing their major-label debut as The Bummer Road, Green Blues. After a decade-plus of making these handcrafted artifacts of freak-folk music (as either Tower Recordings or themselves), the couple have "product."

Thankfully, the major-label sheen hasn't overwhelmed the home-cooking of Green Blues. The album opens with a woozy wash of wah-wah'd guitar and mellotron courtesy of the couple's newest neighbor, Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis. As the track builds steam, it begins to reach a low-key boogie, sounding like the duo has taken cues from another outsider rock couple, Royal Trux. Valentine and Elder's voices are as shaky as leaves in a windstorm, but the backing of guitar, harmonica, and hand percussion gives the entire affair a decidedly stoned feel. The group revisits old numbers from previous releases, but grows more expansive on the double-digit lengths of "Grass Thighs" and "Solar Hill." Spaced out, Green Blues makes the listener realize what a long strange trip it has been for these two.

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Andy Beta

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