The North Carolina-based band Mount Moriah—composed of Heather McEntire (lead vocals, guitar), Jenks Miller (lead guitar, keys), and Casey Toll (bass, keys)—seem insistent to grow. If Mount Moriah’s self-titled debut showed them standing with sea legs, determined to dream their way free from the dark crevices and corners of alt-country’s stiff template; and if Miracle Temple, their second album, called that darkness by its Southern name and met it with fire; then their latest collection of songs, How to Dance, is a devotion to the cosmic light itself: moving towards it, moving into it, becoming it. Mount Moriah’s third full-length sees them stretching further to explore their collective interest in the intangible fringes of fate and synchronicity. With How to Dance, the band presents new themes of symbolism, mysticism, alchemy, universality, sacred geometry. There is color, confidence, self-direction, joy. There is also darkness, but only to show you how it found its light.
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Recorded largely in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and in home studios with the help of long-time collaborator, engineer Nick Petersen; mixed by Brian Paulson (Beck, Wilco, Slint) and Jenks Miller; and mastered by James Plotkin (Tim Hecker, Horseback, Jack Rose), How to Dance not only suggests a wide excavation of buried meaning and heaps of transparent revelation—it also testifies to an expansion into more textured and muscular sonic expressions. In previous efforts, the band carefully cleared space for McEntire’s vocal prowess to direct the scenes; on this record, it serves to amplify the importance of the essential talents around her, balancing structure with fragility, omission with plurality. The trio welcome echoes from their other music projects—Miller’s psych-metal Horseback, McEntire’s post-punk Bellafea, and Toll’s experimental jazz-noise ensembles. Guest vocalists Angel Olsen, Mirah Zeitlyn, and Amy Ray weave supporting harmonies into McEntire’s melodic snapshots. Guest instrumentalists Terry Lonergan (drums and percussion), Daniel Hart (strings), Jeb Bishop (trombone and trumpet), Matt Douglas (saxophone), and Allyn Love (pedal steel) add fresh angles to the soundscapes helmed by Miller and Toll. They create an architecture layered in tones—the jubilant horn arrangements, the ardent string patterns, the moody Mellotron, the decisive rhythm section, the unabashedly gallant guitar lines atop guitar lines. Welded together in sparks, these blueprints enhance and reinforce McEntire’s spirited towers of stories, inspiring more abstract imagery and complex concepts to support the narratives.
Lyrically, within How to Dance, there is less emphasis on personal identity and instead, a concentration on mythic experiences and cross-cultural archetypes, both inherited and discovered. The questions become: How are we all related? What do we all share? The tired nostalgia so present in much of what is called Southern art is transformed into a kind of universalism, a thing that reaches far past itself. Art that stays, Southern or otherwise, is art that is larger than the rest, art that destroys the old—but only after honoring and questioning the history on which we cut our youthful teeth. It uses the parts of itself to reconstruct something brand new. Within the goldenrod, the blood red moon, the golden hours, the crow and stag and raven; beyond the Jacksonville boys, at the Jones Ferry crossing, under the Precita streetlights, behind the clairvoyant’s eyes, in the smoke rising from farm gates … there is hope. Somewhere in the depths of anguish there is optimism, right there on the edge of the darkness—the faith that the magic of the world will not let you down completely. In How to Dance, Mount Moriah is still asking questions and searching for answers, but the vision is distilled down to its own act of seeking. Once illusive, the purest forms of magic have become obtainable, have become a seasoned new language, have been lifted high in the air.
In I’m Not There, a film supposition of Bob Dylan’s life, the version of Dylan played by Cate Blanchett—the pre-motorcycle crash, Blonde on Blonde Dylan—says that “a poem is like a naked person,” and then, blending into the same line, “but a song is something that walks by itself.” Mount Moriah have created a continuous dialogue with humanity, with the metaphysical, with the ecology right in front of us. Here, in How to Dance, everything walks by itself.