“Dear Companion”: the MTR Album
Review By: Johnny Kilroy
That sound of disappointment, from a loved one wronged, burrows into your gut deeper than any tirade.
Reeling fury was what I expected, when I heard about two Kentucky boys named Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore who were making a whole album decrying mountaintop removal. Riding home from work one day, I gave it a listen. I felt like a little wounded calf, stroked and cooed to ease, and then fed a mercy bullet.
(Daniel Martin Moore (left) and Ben Sollee. Photo: SubPop.com)
“Dear Companion” comes like a love-filled monologue in the middle of a firefight. It’s a premium blend of stylish grace, lounging hipness, swelling hope, and subtle traces of traditional hillbilly technique. Lamenting, reflective, and playful, it kind of just… takes her easy.
It opens with a punch. The first track, “Something, Somewhere, Sometime,” has all the geist of the zeit. Something’s got to get done. We know it. We’ve heeded the signs. What? Where? When? We’ll know soon. And what about all that was promised to us in the past? More on that later.
Moore’s velveteen lullaby voice and guitar-plucking makes tunes worthy of any Wes Anderson breakfast table montage. The delicate touch is traceable to Moore’s other work, such as “It’s You.”
Sollee’s cello and vocals add fathoms of depth to the music’s beauty; skillful in soul and jazz, he brings some of that to the party. In “Only a Song,” he reminded me of Elvis Costello, an otherwise fancy-free traveler with a few jests and jabs. Then again, he could pass for Otis Redding’s kin on his independent tracks like “How to See the Sun Rise.”
The backdrop of contemporary Appalachia is oblique, and yet it is unmistakable. There’s a ballad to a lover defiled, kidnapped, and carted away on a train, saying “they might call it love, but they want you for something you’ll eventually lack.” Waltzing rhythms and old mountain harmonies can’t be missed. There’s resounding hope for humanity, and amazement at our benevolent urge “to give it all to someone not yet born.”
The words tune the senses to things of old: “the sound of steel slowing steel;” and things more recent: “don’t you land on me, don’t you bust my house.” They speak plainly about things we know: “they got the law and most of the land, but they ain’t got us…” And they warn: “if they find the black rock there…you’ll have the flyrock blues too.”
Including instrumental tracks was a bold and effective move. Without words, they remind the listener to take time and simply enjoy. Imagine the song “Flyrock #2” as the soundtrack of a walk along a wooded stream, with the guitar-picking and moaning cello describing all the little wonders observed.
In this tumultuous time, for Appalachians whose land and culture are being systematically obliterated, complete outrage is the appropriate human response. But Sollee and Moore are cool operators. Finger to bow, they are steady as surgeons. “Whether days are bright or sorrow-filled, we’ll find our comfort in these hills,” they sing.
With loving craftsmanship, they give us something that goes down smooth and burns a little bit in the belly. It’s a refreshment, like a soft breeze or a flow of cold water on bare feet.
Dear Companion will be officially released on 16 February 2010, by SubPop Records.
Ben Sollee - (Ben Sollee at Bonnaroo 2009. Photo: Dave Gunnells via CreativeCommons)
Daniel Martin Moore - (Daniel Martin Moore. Photo: IndieRecordShop.org)