Mount Moriah: How to Dance

Mount Moriah is a band that continues to grow by making the familiar less so, but more beautiful for the transformation.

Mount Moriah

How to Dance

US Release: 2016-02-26
UK Release: 2016-02-26
Label: Merge

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.





Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".


The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?


Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.


Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.


Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.


Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.


Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.


Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.