Mount Moriah’s latest is an odd and beautiful puzzle of an album. How to Dance is hardly an odd title for a record, except that the phrase sits there on the cover in clean, all-caps lettering next to an ancient stone hand axe. The deliberate counterpoint of promise meeting immovable stone becomes all the more complex when listening to Heather McEntire’s lyrics of spiritual yearning. Can one teach a stone to dance? What might this stone represent? Its long silent maker? The heart of one unmoved by music?
The trio of Mount Moriah—Heather McEntire (vocals), Jenks Miller (lead guitar and keyboards), and Casey Toll (bass guitar and keys)—have released two sparse, beautiful records that saw them carving their own niche into along the well-trodden path of contemporary Americana, their experiences in other, louder bands—Miller’s Horseback and McEntire’s Bellafea—informing their take on traditional-minded North Carolina mountain music. But those records, as this one, demonstrated a deep reverence for those traditions, a non-ironic exploration of merging old and new. These were not the sounds of children trying on grandpappy’s old hat and clodhoppers to put on a rainy day show to ward off boredom because the TV was broke. Nor are they the result of opportunistic scene-jumping. From the start, their music has sounded too fully formed to qualify as “side project”. Theirs is a studied but organic understanding of this music. At its center, framed and featured like hand-stitched lace from an ancestor was McEntire’s voice, often and rightly compared to Dolly Parton’s for its crystalline purity. Whatever the comparisons, on How to Dance McEntire takes full possession of that voice, but in a surprising way, stepping back into the instrumental mix where the band’s previous productions have pushed her voice to the fore.
It takes a special kind of self-confidence to step back in this way, but this is a band that has, despite their still comparable youth, consistently made the right kind of choices by shrugging off the obvious path. How to Dance is a band album in every way, the instrumental “voices” doing their part to amplify and embody McEntire’s intentions even if they sometimes overtake the words themselves. The band communicates these songs as a unit; removing any player would change the song’s reception.
Where Mount Moriah’s previous album, Miracle Temple, evoked a melancholy feeling of looking back into darkness past, How to Dance looks forward and upward in search of light, its collective sounds upbeat and hopeful. Across its ten tracks, this record, and please pardon my saying it, has a good beat, and you can dance to it. Opener “Calvander” offers a swaying groove as we follow McEntire on a small-town Saturday night ramble, finding faith in the neon lights of the downtown while reveling in the knowledge that the local Romeos are all going home without finding “sweet release”. “Chiron (God in the Brier)”, too, moves along with an upbeat drive that would keep any dance floor busy. “Cardinal Cross” offers a harder, waltz-like measure while “How to Dance” does indeed sway with just the right kind of steady motion of couples rocking together for a last-call slow-spin on the dance floor. Sonically, this is the band’s most cohesive and fulfilling record. Engineered by Nick Petersen and mastered by James Plotkin, the album brims with muscled texture and a baker’s half dozen of guest musicians including Terry Lonergan on drums and percussion, Allyn Love on pedal steel, and Daniel Hart on strings add a lushness to the album’s soundscape. McEntire further demonstrates her vocal confidence by sharing the mic with guest vocalists Amy Ray, Angel Olsen, and Mirah Zeitllyn.
With McEntire’s vocals set back in the mix, it’s easy for this album to pass as excellent background or driving music, but limiting it to that would be a mistake. Lyrically, McEntire offers her most adventurous, searching songs here. She has grappled in the past with the challenges of expressing the sincerity of faith in a world as cynical as ours. But here, she throws off any guard to embrace both the search for holiness and those small shards of light that the everyday may bring us if only our hearts remain open. In “Calvaner” she prays openly for “some kind, any kind of light” while declaring, in “Precita”, that “The highest soul has the whitest spark.” In “Baby Blue” she plucks “goldenrod from the hand of God” before finding “God in a briar” below a water tower in “Chiron (God in the Brier)”. McEntire is, in these songs, an unapologetic spiritual searcher. Her honesty is uplifting and inspirational, not because she promises any answer but because of her bravery in being so open. We live in a world of constant judgment, surrounded by know-it-alls of all stripes and perspectives. As she sings in the album’s title song, “Gotta lot of people telling me how to dance.” She doesn’t listen to them; rather, she listens to her own heart, which, ultimately, provides the source of her songs.
This is an album to savor from a band that continues to grow and to surprise.