Superficially, Dear Companion appears to be a protest record, one with songs aimed squarely and angrily at the target – in this case, the horrifyingly irresponsible act of mountaintop removal coal mining. You can read all about the proceeds going to Appalachian Voices (an organization dedicated to stopping the practice) and about how three musicians from Kentucky – Daniel Martin Moore, Ben Sollee, and Jim James – came together to write about their love for their home state. But Dear Companion isn't full of the fire and brimstone you'd expect from musicians trying to make a point about a controversial issue. Instead, the record uses honey in place of vinegar, and the result is an experience with a broader worldview.
The talent present here is undeniable. Two of acoustic music's most promising artists in Moore and Sollee are shepherded by the hand of My Morning Jacket's James (appearing here as "Yim Yames"), who is nothing if not full of tunes. Lyrically, the album is strikingly resonant, and the blend of Moore and Sollee's voices gives the songs a reassuring, confident feeling. Snapshots of the sound range from bluegrass and folk to blues and jazz. Much like the Appalachian citizen's struggle against those who would demolish their home, Dear Companion is far more complex than a cursory glance can reveal.
The opening "Something, Somewhere, Sometime" is instantly disorienting, crossing anthemic indie-rock rhythms with boiling banjo and sweeping melodies. Conversely, "My Wealth Comes To Me" features just the duo's voices and instruments buffered by a few organ and mellotron splashes from James, who also helps out on the vocal harmonies. Written by Sollee, the first two songs display his knack for elegant, intricate, and evocative songwriting, while Moore's contributions are more plainspoken. "Needn't Say A Thing," for instance, lopes along at a mule's pace, and its dusty country slant is further enhanced by slide guitar.
Moore and Sollee both prove their skill at various intervals, but the album definitely listens as a whole, especially when Sollee's lyrical gift and Moore's ear for the blues meet James' knack for ghostly, mystical atmospherics, such as on “Dear Companion,” the fragile "Sweet Marie" and the rumbling "Try." But even without all of those elements coalescing, the songs sparkle. Moore adds only his vocal to Sollee's "Only A Song," and it stands as the centerpiece of the album. Moore then offers his own vocal and guitar piece, "Flyrock Blues," as a glimpse into his solitary approach to the topic at hand, and the delicate instrumental "Flyrock #2" allows the pair to showcase their instrumental abilities while maintaining continuity.
Even if you've never laid an eye on the Appalachians, Dear Companion will make you understand their beauty and endangerment. Only something truly special and worth keeping could inspire the musicians found here to put everything else aside for the sake of creating a memorable tribute and emotional call-to-arms such as this.