Mount Moriah How to Dance

[Merge; 2016]

Styles: alt-country, folk, american south
Others: Jeff Tweedy, The Moondoggies, Hiss Golden Messenger

How to Dance, Mount Moriah says, is an attempt to broaden the band’s horizons beyond their warm, well-honed alt-country, progressing toward “the cosmic light.” The album is the Durham, NC band’s third, and its first track feels crisply Southern, a song driven of slow, keening guitar and shuffling drums. There are whispers of Duane Allman and the falling of a Southern dusk, as the sun fades and the humid air sinks into the soil. It’s the sound of sweet release, of a heat-choked world loosening its grip. “Calvander” is about hitching across North Carolina, swearing you won’t watch those Jackson boys fight again, trading everything for a whiff of freedom: “neon lights and a new name.” It’s a sunset joyride of a song, all soaring guitars and, at its center, singer Heather McEntire’s voice, rich and worn like ironwood.

And then, like that, we’re out of North Carolina and on our way to the cosmic light. The sound of How to Dance is Southern in the ways we often take that to mean: indolent yet defiant, gritty yet charming. But its concerns are more broadly American. “Calvander” is the start of a cross-country trek; McEntire sings of Precita in San Francisco, and Roanoke, and Macon. Interstates and zip codes fly by. No one spot is dwelled upon (or dwelled in), but taken as a whole, the album is an atlas of wanderings that step every which way, no principle destination — like a dance in that way. If Mount Moriah is mostly a vehicle for McEntire’s voice, it’s appropriate in at least this way, for it’s a voice equal to the task of enunciating mundane American place names (Davis Square in Boston; Okefenokee Swamp on the Florida-Georgia border) as if they were pit stops to the promised land.

McEntire is indeed searching for that light, hoping that at one of these way stations she’ll meet the maker herself, finding signs of the divine along the way. She encounters lovers, too, but as wistful memories, snapshots just out of grasp. They’re all moments encountered in one or another moment of longing, taken note of, then passed through. “The highest soul has the whitest spark,” goes “Precita,” an understanding, perhaps, that one must escape the lusts of the everyday and the comforts of home before they can be deserving of enlightenment. In a way that Americans might think of as distinctly American, McEntire takes to the road to let go and cleanse herself.

But the record is less like a drive and more like a dance, finding hope and happiness in movement, even if that movement, finally, doesn’t get us too far from where we started. “Calvander” is a dynamite song, with its beautifully designed chorus: the one-two bash of guitar; then McEntire, lines flowing like oratory, crying out at the spot by the side of the road where she’s waiting (“Under the Cal-a-vander sign”), then settling her eyes on the road (“hitch a ride to the Carteret county line”). It sets the bar high — it’s the moment the Southern comforts are supposed to fade in the rearview mirror. But even though McEntire moves around plenty in the songs that follow, the music still feels settled at home. (Outside of a few moments, like the brooding coda to “Little Bear,” the band can also feel underutilized, relegated mostly to a supporting role.) While McEntire’s aimlessness feels honest and satisfying in its questing, it also makes for an album with plenty of movement but less, perhaps, in the way of progress.

Links: Mount Moriah - Merge

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