Mount Moriah’s third album How to Dance is a tour of the American South. Not so much a geographic tour, though plenty of places are name-checked, but more a survey of the spiritual, literary and mythic landscape of singer-songwriter-guitarist Heather McEntire’s homeland.
Mount Moriah gets lumped in with alternative country, and for certain their earlier albums had more country-ish elements. But How to Dance has more in common with Southern rock, particularly in the slow- to mid-tempo beats that predominate, and sonically, especially lead guitarist Jenks Miller’s chiming electric guitar sound that points out this band’s kinship with other indie Southern rockers like Lucero and Glossary.
But Mount Moriah is solidly Southern especially in McEntire’s dense, poetic lyrics, which this time around are more mythic than gothic. Take the melancholy, melodic “Baby Blue,” featured in this video that purposely breaks the fourth wall and shows snippets of the filming process.
I’ve listened to that song many times and watched the video a few and still can’t say I’m any closer to being able to in down any exact meaning. It’s about impermanence, certainly, as McEntire sings in the chorus, ” …you know nothing lasts forever, even if you want it to.” And the opening line “Bright eyes at sunrise, it’s a haunting privilege” seem a poetic way of saying it’s a gift just to wake up every morning. But what about “Ghosts out in Auxvasse …”? I take it as a reference to the so-called Kingdom of Callaway in Missouri, where a town called Auxvasse is located. The whole story – you can look it up online – speaks of independence, deceit in the service of survival, holding on to old ways, and unwillingness to surrender, which the song’s lyrics allude to in the refrain “are you going to let me win?” To me, the best music, like the best fiction, leaves some ambiguity, so the audience gets to participate in creating the meaning. If that’s what Mount Moriah is doing here, they’re succeeding in a thrilling way.
Nearly the whole of How to Dance is similarly layered with context and subtext. It’s also wonderfully entertaining to listen to. Part of the reason Mount Moriah seems like a country band is McEntire’s voice, which in its quavering Southern soprano resembles a young Dolly Parton’s. And her lyrics and the power trio’s arrangements give songs like the opener “Calvander” a catchiness that doesn’t depend entirely on hooks.
McEntire was raised a Southern Baptist – in fact she has said her parents worked for Billy Graham – and the tension between secular rock and Southern gospel underlies many of these songs. “Precita” (backing vocals by Angel Olsen) mixes spiritual lyrics (“The highest soul has the whitest spark”) with a soulful arrangement that will put you in mind of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The slow-burning “Fox In The City” pairs a bass-heavy soul arrangement with lyrics about seeing a former lover as a ghost in smoke rising from a city sidewalk or a farm gate. That’s Casey Toll, the third member of this North Carolina trio, on bass. The next song, “Higher Mind,” with backing vocals from the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, draws on both biblical imagery and churchy organ for its gospel underpinnings. But the religious images give way to hard-earned lessons about secular love and letting go: “Lovers will leave you, and you must let them, but you will never be the same,” she sings without a trace of resignation.
How to Dance is a rich record. The music draws on many familiar Southern forms from rock to gospel to soul. There are some great horn charts on several of these songs. The lyrics reference lofty classical mythology and banal pop culture: “Chiron came to me through the seer and the sage” in “Cardinal Cross”; “Davis Square never got you anywhere but a copy of Comes a Time,” in the eponymous “Davis Square” are but two examples. You’ll be following along with the enclosed lyrics, trying to figure this one out for some time. But don’t forget to get up and move to this moving music, too. Mount Moriah’s soulful rock definitely wants to teach you how to dance.