Music that Tries Not to Move Mountains

I’m not an expert, but this seems like a retarded way to get coal. You end up destroying a lot of the environment (burying streams with the toxic mining byproducts, just for starters) to scrape the last bits of coal from places where maybe it’s not such a good idea to go scraping (mountaintop removal miners are required to “restore” the mountain tops but often get permits that allow them to skirt that responsibility, employing a practice called “valley fills” to deposit the waste in valleys. This is the mining equivalent of throwing your dog’s shit in the neighbor’s yard). It can fuck up the water quality and ecosystem in ways that are hard to repair (and can even kill people, but we’ll get to that in a minute). So what kind of brain-fucked primates would still engage in this barbaric style of mining? Well, if you live in the south and are tired of the dumb redneck stereotype, get ready to be angry. Turns out mountaintop removal mining (MTR to its friends, whoever they are) is pretty popular in the Appalachians. Unless you have to, I dunno, live near there and don’t work for a coal mining company. Just take a random sample of, say, 125 folks from Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, and see how they feel about it. But be careful which ones you choose because 125 people died in a flood of black water (from a lake that was used to clean coal, held back by a dam made of coal waste) in Buffalo Creek back in 1972. I’m guessing MTR is a sore subject for some Buffalo Creek residents.

I know what you’re thinking: What the fuck does this have to do with music?

Turns out some of Kentucky’s finest musicians are none too happy about MTR and its less-than-helpful side effects (by the way, this isn’t some wishy-washy liberal tree-hugger issue – fucking Science magazine, hardly a left-wing rag, evaluated current peer-reviewed studies and water quality data and concluded that so-called mitigation practices cannot fully address the environmental concerns raised by MTR) and three of them got together to make an album so that they could donate 100% of the artists’ proceeds to these guys. The musicians are cellist Ben Sollee and Sub Pop folky Daniel Martin Moore, the album is called Dear Companion, and it’s produced by a mysterious Kentuckian named Yim Yames who, rumor (and fact) has it is actually Jim James from My Morning Jacket, one of the finest rock bands on the planet right now. So James is the biggest celebrity on board here, which isn’t saying much. While he’s a bearded god on par with Woden in indie circles, I’m not sure the people who enjoyed the well-intentioned but musically awful performances on the Haiti telethon will take much notice of Dear Companion. I’m kind of torn about this because, on the positive side, I won’t have to hear any horrible acts like the Black Eyed Peas sing about mountaintop removal; but, on the negative side, the fight against MTR could certainly use the shit-tons of money that the Black Eyed Peas usually reel in for charity gigs (I’m trying to be nice here – while I detest the music made by the Black Eyed Peas, you’d have to be a really heartless bastard to be angry at  bands that raise money for good causes).

Which is cool and all, but how does it sound?

The great thing about Dear Companion is it successfully fights what must be a pretty strong urge to go all Billy Bragg outrage on your ass and supplies the listener instead with eleven tracks that range from beautiful (“Try”) to stunning (“Something, Somewhere, Sometime” and “Sweet Marie”), all basically on the theme of loss (of love and mountaintops). It’s a quiet, mostly subtle (“Only a Song” feels a bit obligatory but is still an all right listen) album made by two guys with absolutely no star power. Which means they probably won’t raise enough money to put a stop to MTR, but they probably knew they couldn’t do it on their own anyway. Perhaps, faced with such impressive destruction (and I’m a fan of blowing shit up, I really am, but blowing shit up and crushing ecosystems with the leftovers is in poor taste to say the least), Sollee and Moore could only retreat to what they do best, which, judging by Dear Companion, is make achingly beautiful music.

So in some ways, it’s kinda sad that Dear Companion is such a heartbreaking success. Although it looks like the Obama Administration has suspended the permits that enable MTR for the time being, one can imagine that the fight over mountaintop removal is far from over. If the wrong guys win, the mountains will go away, but we’ll have some amazing music to mourn the loss. With cello, guitar, and voice, Sollee and Moore transmit their grief through soft, folky indie rock that is steeped in the traditions of Appalachian music, suggesting without ever saying that the mountains are not the only things that will disappear if this disastrous mining technique is allowed to continue. Though I should point out, lest you mistake me, that Sollee and Moore are certainly not resigned to the continuation of MTR and the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains. If they were, there would be no point in donating the money from this album to fighting MTR. Think of it this way: about thirty years ago, Joe Strummer sang, “Let fury have the hour/ anger can be power/ d’you know that you can use it?” and on Dear Companion, Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore seem to be grieving that fury didn’t have the hour thirty-eight fucking years ago at Buffalo Creek.

Even if Sollee and Moore were just out to entertain and were keeping all the money for themselves, Dear Companion would be a beautiful record and definitely worth your time and money. It’s smartly produced by Yames/James, who clearly understood that the best thing to do was let Sollee and Moore play their instruments and sing without a whole lot of knob-tweaking. James even adds some backing vocals here and there, though Sollee and Moore are better-than-good singers on their own.

At the end of the day, I find it exceedingly difficult not to reward great music for a good cause, so Dear Companion was an easy acquisition for me. Even if you’re not into the cause (honestly, though, after looking at the facts, I’m not sure how a thinking person could support mountaintop removal mining. If you consider yourself a thinking person and you do support MTR, let’s please have ourselves a respectful debate), the music is truly lovely and will probably end up being one of the great hidden treasures of 2010.

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