A circuitous review of Ben Sollee’s new collaboration with Daniel Martin Moore
We have known, at least since the 1969 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s once widely read book The Population Bomb, that our civilization was on a collision course with the carrying capacity of our planet. It is possible to argue that his numbers were askew, that his thesis doesn’t take into account the endlessly inventive nature of humankind; but to do so is to miss the point, to trouble over excruciating details which, in the end, change nothing.
We have known that one day the oil would run out, and now trouble ourselves blindly with the assurance that the most dire predictions — that our day of reckoning will come during my lifetime — must be wrong.
Our writers and filmmakers and artists have wrestled with these intractable issues for decades, from Koyaanisqatsi to An Inconvenient Truth to any number of small words I’ve typed hither and yon.
Best I can tell, nothing has changed. It benefits nobody of wealth and power to embrace that change, for nothing is more challenging than the possibility that one’s hold on the world might slip, that one’s status might change. That one might be wrong.
All those things could be wrong, but I fear they are not.
You have seen the commercials for clean coal, for they are everywhere, and in print.
Which argues that technology can make the burning of coal less toxic to the atmosphere. Engineers are smart people. Maybe they can. Which argues, this clean coal myth, that we need to use up our own natural resources so as to disentangle ourselves from the petroleum trap, which is both a matter of resource management and of national security. Insecurity.
Clean coal are words which may be joined in a sentence only if one has never driven behind a coal truck.
Clean coal are words which may be joined in a sentence only if one has never seen the streams and lakes savaged by various kinds of mining operations.
Clean coal are words which may be joined in a sentence only if one has never seen a coal harvesting operation which has removed the top of a mountain.
My part of Eastern Kentucky is not coal mining country, but we travel a fair bit within our region, and as one heads south and east from here, toward North Carolina, there are sights to make your breath stop and your heart sink. I will not insert photographs. You can find them, and easily. You should be made to seek this knowledge out.
Proponents of clean coal assure us that mountaintop removal is an economic boon, that they are creating flat land which allows towns to grow, as if growth were the preeminent virtue of capitalism. (Maybe it is, but I should like not to untangle those words just now.)
Mountaintop removal is an abomination. It is many other words which I cannot bring myself to type. It is wrong. It is a price we should not pay, a price we should not ask some of the poorest people in some of the poorest counties in the richest country in the world to pay, for removing the mountaintop is not so simple as it sounds. The leftovers have to go somewhere. Whole ecosystems are destroyed. Neighboring homes are savaged by explosions and dust and the cavalier certainty of mining corporations that our national need trumps whatever rights people might have to their homes, that harvesting energy is a higher calling than preserving and protecting the planet upon which we all live.
(I will note one argument in favor of mountaintop removal: it is far less dangerous to miners than deep pit operations are. At the same time, ongoing research seems to suggest that mining benefits only the mining companies, and not the communities where the resource is to be found. Funny how that works out.)
I wish not to pay this price. We will put our money where my mouth is as we build a new, small, energy efficient home, and struggle to take it as far off the grid as we can. That’s what I can do. And I can do this.
I can ask you to listen to and, yes, to buy this new album made by Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore and produced by Yim Yames (whatever; I assume this has as much to do with recording contracts as it does with indie cred), released this week by the venerable and honorable Sub Pop label. Not only is it a fine record, but its proceeds will benefit efforts to oppose mountaintop removal.
Mr. Sollee, you will perhaps remember, played cello with Otis Taylor, and then with the Sparrow Quartet. In the middle of that he recorded a digital-only EP called Something Worth Keeping (from which “Only A Song” is reprised here) and a first-rate album called Learning To Bend that I very nearly missed during the closing of our magazine. Mr. Sollee is from Lexington. So, apparently, is Daniel Martin Moore, whose demo got him signed to Sub Pop, hence that label’s release of this collaboration, the outgrowth of their meeting on some social media platform. (I know nothing of Moore’s previous work.)
Mr. Yames’ presence is negligible, as it should be, but he’s also from Kentucky, and so that, too, makes sense.
Several other more local projects have sought to raise money to oppose the atrocity of mountaintop removal through music.
This is a record, first, a collection of songs far more than it is a political statement. The politics, save for “Flyrock Blues” “and “Shovel” are principally in what they choose to do with the proceeds, and the light they choose to shine on a horror the nation wishes mostly to ignore. Sollee has a wonderful, flexible voice, able to summon the ghosts of Sam Cooke (as in last album’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) and Nick Drake, say. And to say that he plays cello is to miss the point.
For the rest…you have but to listen, and to look. And to care. Plus or minus the politics, Sollee is a formidable and still frightening young talent (any new parent will understand “Try,” for example). He is worth hearing, for he has the magic, and I still crave that, no matter what.
Obligatory self-promotional sentence: the next edition of “Grant Alden’s Field Notes” airs at 7 p.m. EST on Morehead State Public Radio, WMKY-FM. This one’s about black country music.