Photo: Heather Evans Smith / Courtesy of Merge Records

H.C. McEntire Delivers Her Masterpiece with ‘Eno Axis’

Born in isolation not so much by outside mandate as by natural inspiration, H.C. McEntire’s Eno Axis is a masterwork of deep, spiritual escapism.

Eno Axis
H.C. McEntire
21 August 2020

The Eno River flows through Orange and Durham Counties in North Carolina, settling at Falls Lake in Wake County. For 40 years, the Festival for the Eno hosted many up-and-coming as well as legendary local and national artists on its stages to raise money for the preservation of the river’s basin and its surrounding land. Everyone from Doc Watson, Mike Cross, and the Two Dollar Pistols to Emmylou Harris, the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, and Ralph Stanley has performed at the festival to help its conservation. Music runs through the area where the Eno flows as much as its waters. It’s also where singer-songwriter H.C. McEntire now calls home.

Originally from outside of Tryon, North Carolina, in the community of Green Creek, McEntire spends much of her second solo album, Eno Axis, reflecting on her time there as well as surveying the state of the world from her current perch by the flowing Eno River. Not that the river gives off any mystical powers, or exudes a subliminal shower of sorcery, but it does act as a muse for the songs that make up her most spiritually and musically fulfilling work yet.

Eno Axis washes over you like the mighty rolling river that gives the album its name. The music gradually unfurls and flows with ease, calming the senses, while firmly rooted in place. The band, consisting of guitarist/keyboardist Luke Norton, bassist Casey Toll, drummer/percussionist Daniel Faust, Nathan Bowles on banjo, Allyn Love on pedal steel, and backing vocals from Mario Arnez and Justin Morris, surround McEntire with music that displays a rich, atmospheric, nocturnal summer beauty that conjures the feeling of a humid southern night. The production, by McEntire, Norton, and Missy Thangs, captures throughout the wonder of each moment, like Daniel Lanois at his most sympathetic, but without overpowering the performances.

Eno Axis is that rare album that feels timeless. One could imagine these songs emanating from the grooves of newly-discovered dusty 78s with McEntire’s hypnotic, ghostly vocals cutting through the surface noise. The lyrics address memories of her childhood. “One Eye Open”, which doesn’t so much look back wistfully or with nostalgia as it merely remembers and reports images both benign and disturbing as recalled through the lens of experience. She celebrates the river that rolls by her one-hundred-year-old farmhouse (the ominous, powerful “River’s Jaw”). McEntire offers couplets such as, “Take me just like a train / Wild as the wind is strange” on the chugging, pedal-steel-driven, Levon Helm-like groove of the brilliant “High Rise”. Meanwhile, “True Meridian” sounds as timeless as a traditional centuries-old Celtic folk ballad; its melody as haunting as it is irresistible.

The album concludes with an otherworldly reimagining of the Led Zeppelin warhorse, “Houses of the Holy”, which McEntire previously released as a single in 2019. In McEntire’s hands – and voice – it is a quiet, yet deeply soul-stirring rumination of the spiritual power of music. Hidden beneath lyrics that once pointed the way to hedonistic pleasures, McEntire uncovers both universal joy and gospel power as she channels the likes of Hope Sandoval and Margo Timmins as filtered through gospel legend, and Durham native, Shirley Caesar.

It sounds timeless, on par with the rest of Eno Axis. Its slow-churning blues gently comes to a halt as she delivers the final verse over a lone organ seemingly being played from another room or dimension. “There ain’t no use in crying ’cause it will only drive you mad,” she sings the familiar lyrics as if from the pulpit of a long-abandoned church house while a lone guitar note squeezes out the punctuation. “Does it hurt to hear them lying? Is it the only world you had?” The last line hangs in the air as the organ’s final note lingers just seconds longer, just long enough to reflect on the beauty and power that came before.

RATING 9 / 10