Miracle Temple will remind you of genre names, of country and soul and tags like alt- and neo-, but it's none of those things. It's a brilliant new sound from a band that's just getting started.
Genres are certainly a surface conceit, a simple name for a complicate set of inspirations and traditions. So it makes sense that, say, the idea of country music is one so fraught with questions, with contradictions, with those who argue for or against it, who decide what is and is not under its umbrella, who invent add-ons like alt- or pop- to protect it, who ignore it in lieu of delving into these murky questions. It's not a unique trait for country music, but as its poppier incarnations rake in dollars and traditionalists cry foul (some more than others), we seem to -- as in other genres -- be constantly in search of the genuine article, what "real" country music is.
Here's the thing: Mount Moriah isn't it. Here's the other thing: That is one of their finest of many features. Mount Moriah is absolutely music for the country -- it's uninterested in the square blocks and steel and concrete, with the rebar-embedded structures of cities and businesses and suits -- but it's not country music. It's music that is deeply southern, that borrows from country and soul traditions but refuses to wallow in the past. This isn't country music for the simple fact that it doesn't need to be, that its roots run deeper than any genre title could pin down.
Mount Moriah is also a surprising bit of beauty considering its genesis. Heather McEntire was the singer for the excellently brash rock band Bellafea, while guitar Jenks Miller is best known in North Carolina for his Southern-gothic-psych-metal outfit Horseback. But two years ago the two teamed up -- for the second time, their first a pop act called Un Deux Trois -- and released Mount Moriah, a soulful, bittersweet breath of fresh air. That album was lush and melted at the edges and pensive, Miller's guitar lines circling around the honeyed vulnerability of McEntire's voice.
It was an excellent, nearly flawless debut, but Miracle Temple, the band's new record, is a huge step forward. It investigates its themes in the same opaque ways -- delving into loss and transition and alienation without getting tear-in-your-beer reductive -- but the sound is bigger, warmer, more confident. McEntire's voice is in full bloom, sifting through questions without questioning itself. It's self-assured enough to sound like it doesn't always know, and somehow powerful in that doubt. The ringing sweetness of opener "Younger Days" starts with just Miller's guitar and McEntire's voice, and that isolation carries through even as the song stretches out and builds. It's a song of heartache in one way, but when the chorus sweeps in and McEntire asks "August is over so when are you coming back?" that's not really the question she's asking. She also knows "you know who's in town" and she's buying those regulars their regular drinks and somewhere else in the barroom "Jenny's still the same." It's a song not about when someone will return, but how we return to comfort and familiarity, whether or not we can keep going back. It's a song propelling forward even as it keeps an eye on the past, a sweet past, one McEntire would like to keep even as she knows it's fading away.
This is a perfect set up for the rest of the record. "I Built a Town" explores the lengths we go to keep people, and their memories close, and McEntire tries building structures that all fail to keep the familiar around, the keening strings taunting her as they seem to float up and away from the dusty space of the tune. "White Sands" begs for the healer to "heal me with all you have" even as we're reminded of small details -- the yellowing of teeth, for instance -- that remind us of a yesterday that has left its mark. "Those Girls" deals with mistakes and regret, the girls done in by "vodka-tonic complements" who then run off the next morning to find "Hail Marys". What becomes clear, though, is that it's not the girls deep in regret, but the one left behind, the one who doesn't "mind being an experiment" but then faces a lonely morning.
It's these subtle twists in expectation that make Miracle Temple so remarkable. In "Those Girls" and elsewhere, we're confronted with the notion of the victimized or marginalized woman, only to see it turned on its head. That woman is not after the man -- in fact, the focus is often ambiguous when it comes to gender -- but rather pushes past any thoughts of co-dependence to ask bigger questions. That or we assume the female voices here want companionship when maybe they just want to find their own way. McEntire's voice is thrilling here, capable of clear-eyed power and small, imperfect cracks of melancholy, and the words she shapes them into are equally intimate and evasive, willing to both let you in and challenge you simultaneously.
Around her the music pushes in a similar way. It's no wonder there's so many places here -- see "Connecticut to Carolina" or "Swannanoa" -- because these songs have a geographical sense of space and sound. Miller's guitar work is never flashy (nor is the subtle bass work from Casey Toll) but it spins in intricate circles. It rings out and feels sometimes sunkissed, other times dusty, but there's never an oversold twang here. Miller knows enough of his traditions -- and there's as much Stax in his sound as there is straw -- to leave them be, to use them as a jumping off point. And jump the band does, from the bright haze of "Younger Days" to the crunchy hooks of "Rosemary" to the Crazy-Horse swamp-rock of "Miracle Temple Holiness".
This album takes the understate melodies of its predecessor and pushes them into any and every logical musical path they could go down. Miracle Temple will remind you of genre names, of Country and Soul and tags like alt- and neo-, but it's none of those things. It's a brilliant new sound from a new band that's just getting started. And that's maybe the greatest strength here, that as you play this album over and over you're unlikely to worry about the past, about where this sound came from, but rather wonder -- in the small cracks and dark corners of these songs, in the sheer expansive borderlessness of this sound -- where else this band can go. You won't know the answer, but you'll know there is one. In the meantime, you have this collection to wander through, to puzzle over even as, at every turn, it comforts.