Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore Dear Companion

[Sub Pop; 2010]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: environmentally-conscious indie folk
Others: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Jim James

Raised in the rolling green hills and verdant forests that often come to mind when someone mentions an Appalachian state, Kentuckians Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore have combined their talents to create an environmentally-conscious indie folk record that works as both a quiet protest album and a careful exploration of the supposed new-folk revival. Written in remonstration of the heinous form of surface mining known as mountaintop removal, Sollee explains in the liner notes how this type of coal mining is devastating the mountains and woodland areas that he grew up loving. His eagerness to do something about the situation led him to contact Moore and record Dear Companion; all of the proceeds benefit

But Dear Companion provides more than just social commentary; it’s also a meeting of two of the more recently celebrated names in indie folk music. In 2007, Sollee was named one of NPR Music’s Top 10 Great Unknown Artists. He’s garnered a commendable reputation as a songwriter and cellist, having played with a list of notables in both blues and jazz that includes Otis Taylor and Béla Fleck. Moore, on the other hand, has the distinction of being that one-in-a-million artist who managed to land a record deal with a noteworthy label (Sub Pop) simply by submitting a demo tape. Both have released solo albums: Sollee’s Learning to Bend in 2008, and Moore’s Stray Age in 2009, the latter featuring an exceptional cameo by Petra Haden.

Despite both the serious concept behind Dear Companion and the magnitude of this collaboration, lead single “Something, Somewhere, Sometime” begins things with a chuckle. It’s an upbeat song that springs and bounces like a country hayride, a far cry from the gentle folk some listeners may expect when approaching this album. Written by Sollee, the song begins with its protagonist musing aloud, “Sometimes I find myself reelin’/ Listin’ and rollin’ in a plastic sea/ There’s signs and signals biddin’ for attention from me.” Sollee pits the distractions of the city against the ready escape he’s found in the woods of his Kentucky home: “So turn on your city/ And I will turn on mine/ And we’ll hum and glow like/ Somethin’ somewhere sometime.” It’s quaint, well-written, and so deftly performed that its simplicity becomes its greatest asset.

Throughout the album, the duo exchange songwriting duties, and Moore’s “Needn’t Say a Thing” continues many of the same themes: solace found in the quiet shadows of the woods, comfort in simple pleasures, and an almost sacred stillness observed in the unadorned innocence of nature. And like any good student of Thoreau, he contrasts these glories with the frustrating pursuits of a more sophisticated life: “Of the volumes and volumes left for the shelves/ The clever instruments learned so very well/ And of the fiery topics, hotly discussed/ The iron-clad deals left for the rust/ No no, you needn’t say a thing.” The conclusion, while never explicated, is certainly obvious, and Moore wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dear Companion offers proof after proof that the Kentucky mountaintops are indeed dear to these two performers. The mountains and surrounding area are praised in the subtle poetry of songs like “Wilson Creek” and framed by the lyrical strings of “Sweet Marie.” To their credit, Sollee and Moore make their point without extending the tunes beyond their natural reach. If anything, this album, at just under 37 minutes, feels short. Sure, the album’s not perfect — “My Wealth Comes to Me” resembles Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Love Comes to Me” from 2006’s The Letting Go so closely that it seems an homage — but its strength lies in being straightforward. Some will consequently pass it by, but like the mountains and woodlands to which it’s dedicated, Dear Companion presents a plain beauty that only resonates for those who pause long enough to breathe it in.

Links: Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore - Sub Pop

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