With its credits reading like a who’s who of Kentucky’s finest independent musicians, Dear Companion finds Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore making the most of their collaborators’ unique gifts and paying thoughtful tribute to their home state’s sounds and soulfulness. The record’s organic, homegrown aesthetic is one of its key selling points, with arrangements that emphasize the sophistication of Sollee’s classical training without becoming needlessly fussy or overworked. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James leaves ample elbowroom in his production: The album isn’t as reverb-heavy as MMJ’s It Still Moves, but songs like the rollicking “Try” and more subdued “My Wealth Comes to Me” impress for their sense of space and dynamic range. In the throes of the loudness war, Dear Companion is an album that simply sounds gorgeous.
That the album boasts a real depth of sound actually fits with its broader themes, since the project was partially inspired by Sollee and Moore’s involvement in the crusade to end the environmentally devastating practice of mountaintop removal in the coal-mining regions of eastern Kentucky. “It Won’t Be Long,” “Only a Song,” and “Sweet Marie” all make reference to natural beauty and impress for the fact that Sollee and Moore show such a light hand with their activism. Instead of launching into An Inconvenient Truth-style screeds, the two artists make more subtle points that are always in service to broader, more emotionally evocative narratives. Opener “Something, Somewhere, Sometime” and the title track both surprise for the power of their concise but still fully-drawn images.
In their best moments, Sollee and Moore both demonstrate a real economy of language that draws parallels to the bluegrass and country songs most commonly associated with their home state. Moore’s “Flyrock Blues” packs a loaded message into its standard 12-bar structure, while on the minimalist “Try,” Sollee considers how the irreparable damage to the environment may impact his young son. It’s only when the songs are somewhat overwritten that the record drags: “Only a Song” attempts to confront accusations of liberal guilt head-on, but a couplet about driving through “the ghetto” that ends with “Even though I grew up in the suburbs/I didn’t really grow ‘til I learned how so many others live” borders on self-parody.
Fortunately, both men tend to show equal measures of restraint and insight in their songwriting, which allows the focus to remain on their message and exceptional performances. Sollee’s cello figures prominently in the arrangements, as do a host of more traditional string instruments like a mandolin and slide guitar. While these instruments keep the set grounded in Appalachian folk music, the record isn’t simply an exercise in mimicry. Similar-sounding acts like Mumford & Sons or Chatham County Line may be more interested in stoking a stale retro fetish, but Sollee and Moore incorporate more varied, contemporary influences. Emily Hagihara and Duane Lundy of Chico Fellini provide propulsive rhythm sections to “Something” and “Try,” while James layers less conventional sounds, like typewriter percussion on the title track, throughout the record.
A truly accomplished, forward-thinking album, Dear Companion is deserving of more than just a devoted regional following, even if it is so informed by a particular region’s geography and culture. An “earthy” record in the best sense of the term, Dear Companion is a work of real empathy and intelligence.