It’s a bit of a surprise to hear a 2010 album on Sub Pop that’s all about coal mining, but that’s the concept for Dear Companion, the collaboration between young songwriters Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore with producer Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket. The three, all Kentucky natives, recorded the album to raise awareness of a destructive mining practice called mountaintop removal (MTR). All proceeds from sales to an organization called Appalachian Voices. If you’re not from the Appalachians, you might need to Wiki all this, though you and I both know you won’t. And that, right up front, is the mountain that stands between Dear Companion and the average listener: Sollee and Moore are two obscure talents with an obscure message, singing protest songs to an audience who, except those within a specialized niche, are more or less doomed to apathy.
Luckily, Sollee and Moore are realists: “This is only a song / It can’t change the world,” Sollee sings on “Only a Song”. There are only a handful of actual protest songs on Dear Companion, and they protest affluent apathy as much as they do poisoned water and collapsing ecosystems. The lawn chair king in “My Wealth Comes to Me” is the passive recipient of irrigation, food, shelter, and a pay-per-view heavyweight fight, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine him downloading albums from Rapidshare as well. Later on in “Only a Song”, Sollee implicates himself by admitting, “I grew up in the suburbs”.
For the most part, though, the message of Dear Companion is less overt, a story told in images and ideas. If opener “Something, Somewhere, Sometime” is about mountains (and it is), it’s not easy to tell. It’s a road song about progress and those it forgets, as Sollee and Moore sing like ramblin’ men trying to cover their tracks in advance: “If you see me coming / I’ll probably pass you by”. Here, though, the love left behind is the land itself, and the narrator’s cavalier attitude hints again at ignorant affluence: “If I’ve wounded you, I’m sorry / It happens all the time”.
Musically, the album is disarmingly low-key. Sollee has shown off his virtuosic cello chops before playing with Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck, but here he tones it back, channeling the Appalachians by plucking the strings like a banjo and bowing long, legato lines that evoke the Kentucky hills. Moore’s songwriting is so simple his songs tend to go unnoticed for the first few listens. But pay attention to his lazy deadpan: “Flyrock Blues” and “Needn’t Say a Thing” have some of the album’s most charged lines. Sollee and Moore prove to be excellent foils for one another–Sollee’s cello adds needed color and weight to Moore’s spacious melodies, while Moore’s mere presence seems to help tone down Sollee’s sometimes overwhelming panache.
Still, at the end of the day it feels strange to call Dear Companion a protest album. The coal mining songs of the early 20th century are certainly a benchmark here, but those stories (and earlier mining practices) are a whole different monster. The people in those songs didn’t need their awareness raised: They were working 70-hour weeks, suffering crippling injuries, and developing the black lung. The songwriter’s job was just to tell the story. In Dear Companion, the obvious main characters are the mountains themselves, and Sollee and Moore take every route possible–personifying them, apologizing to them, making them a motif, evoking them with that cello–just to get us to slow down and notice them.
“We’ll find our comfort in these hills”, Moore sighs near the end of album closer “It Won’t Be Long”, before echoing the melody of that line with a near-falsetto hum, as Sollee’s cello matches him an octave down. It’s a lovely moment and possibly the thesis statement of the album. For the musicians of Appalachia, home isn’t just a place, it’s a discipline, an idea that has to be worked out just like a picking technique or the turn of a phrase. Dear Companion, then, doesn’t protest so much as teach–it reminds us of the consequences of forgetting that practice by practicing it. Sollee and Moore are two of a whole crop of young songwriters attempting to carry on a tradition while adapting to a new online scene, an increasingly out-of-touch audience, and their own metropolitan personalities. On Dear Companion, they’re doing it as well as anybody else out there, so take good notes.