Mount Moriah has all the trappings of a band that should be more popular than it is – an unapologetic front woman with lyrical chops that would make Bob Dylan blush, and a combination jazz/country/soul that’s remarkably smooth – but somehow, the North Carolina trio has yet to receive proper recognition. Despite such career hurdles, the band has remained indomitable, tirelessly touring in support of their critically acclaimed second record, Miracle Temple for the better part of a three year span.
Even with the rave reviews that coincided with the promotion of Miracle Temple, Front woman Heather McEntire struggled with the depressive sophomore slump that seems to inevitably strike artists as their careers begin to take form. Career existentialism has been known to derail promising young act like Mount Moriah before ever reaching the zeitgeist, but the Merge signees remained ever vigilant, eventually reconvening to start LP 3.
Mount Moriah’s perseverance grew a head of steam, building momentum that swelled into a sumptuous collection of alt-country rock tracks worthy of the utmost praise. Where Mount Moriah’s prior discography tended to meander every which way sonically, their third record, How to Dance, has an invigorated sense that felt unwittingly absent in their previous efforts.
How to Dance opens smoothly with “Calvander,” a narrative ballad of sweet Southern wanderlust, presumably set in the eponymous town – Jenks’ boogie guitar sounds ambling along as McEntire waveringly asserts her feminine independence, “I swear to God, tonight those Jackson boys ain’t gonna find sweet company.” Follow-up track, “Precita,” continues McEntire’s narrative rambles, as the album begins to take a more autobiographical form - apocryphal or not. The track chugs along, as McEntire builds a lush lyrical landscape with her voice serving as a vocal analog to Dolly Parton or Stevie Nicks.
Sonically, How to Dance serves as Mount Moriah’s most precise album to date, with unfettered Southern twang help the album maintain its purposefully aimless wandering, illuminating key North Carolina motifs that Mount Moriah have grown so proud to champion. “Baby Blue,” feels particularly keen on uplifting the band’s civic pride (for those who aren’t familiar, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill’s primary color is baby blue), creating a wonderfully idiomatic love ballad thanks in large part to McEntire’s lyrics – “Bright eyes at sunrise/It’s a haunting privilege”– and soft loping percussion.
One of the defining features of How to Dance is the record’s earnest devotion to true country, all the while expressing the collective genre appreciation in the most modern way possible without going full “throwback” (think Margo Price, Nikki Lane). Granted, that’s not a knock against Price or Lane, but How to Dance feels like an album you could play to anybody with Antebellum sensibilities and not complain about direct imitation or “watering down” of the country genre. It’s a clever angle on a genre whose most innovative successes of the past decade have come in the form of iconoclasts (once more, not a knock; Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are true deserving of their praise). Some tracks deviate ever so slightly from the genre– take “Fox in the City,” is a new-age country ballad that celebrates the same ethereal mysticism of the South, but feels more like a blues-y The Verve track, with McEntire’s vocals layered on top of each other while strings occupy the bridge.
The album as a whole acts as an innocuously unapologetic anthology of Mount Moriah’s allegorical association with their native North Carolina and the South in general. It asserts a sort of indignance that assures the listener that having some less than flattering things in one’s past don’t necessarily mean a connection should be totally eliminated. Instead, the album is a confirmation that associating with a place is more than just atoning for a checkered past, rather focusing on the personal connection within oneself.