Heather McEntire’s voice is the first thing you’ll notice about Mount Moriah. With her patient drawl, her deep intonation and her delicate quiver, she’s earned comparisons to a whole slew of country luminaries: Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton. It’s a voice that immediately evokes a sense of history and provides a feeling of comfort, drawing you in from the harsh winter winds toward the warmth of the stove. But look at that fire on the cover of the band’s latest record, Miracle Temple. That bright orange flame crackling, that gray grass wilting, that black smoke billowing into the air—it’s a striking, confrontational image. The cover of the band’s 2011 self-titled album featured a tidy, modest bedroom with a gun mounted on the wall and pictures beside the bed. It almost suggests McEntire only invited you in to burn you alive.
Mount Moriah takes pleasure in these contrasts and contradictions. As almost every piece of writing about the band points out, the group’s guitarist, Jenks Miller, helms the Southern Gothic metal group Horseback, and McEntire herself has a not-so-hidden punk past, having played in considerably more raucous group Bellafea. These biographical details may draw some people in—”It’s country music for people who own the same records as me!”—but they’re also equally likely to raise a few red flags and inspire some skepticism from purists who prefer to keep the “alt” suffix miles away from “country.” It’s easy to imagine either side of the fan spectrum using this album as a way to divide people. “It’s country music for people who don’t like country music,” says the purist. “So what?” says the dabbler.
That hypothetical argument would be a shame because Miracle Temple itself isn’t a particularly divisive or confrontational record. “You were always wild,” sings McEntire on the album’s wistful and nostalgic opener, “Younger Days,” but she’s addressing the song’s unnamed source of heartache, not the band itself. Musically and thematically, Mount Moriah is not a wild band; with its patient guitar parts, soft organ fills, tasteful percussion and yearning romanticism, the group is downright conservative in many ways. Even when they add a new detail—the wailing strings on “I Built A Town” or the ghostly chorus of “Rosemary”—they never let those flourishes define a song; instead, McEntire’s vocals and lyrics do most of the work. Though similar folksy North Carolina bands have broadened their sound in the last couple years—Bowerbirds, the Rosebuds, Megafaun—Mount Moriah remains committed to a sparse, skeletal vein of Americana that values precision over ambition.
That’s not to imply the album isn’t a rich and varied listening experience, but its ambiguities and complexities are shaded in charcoal, not paint. Most of the heavy-lifting comes from McEntire’s lyrics, which value phrase-making over narratives and confessions, giving even the more straightforward rock songs on the album a collage-like quality. She’s a gatherer of images more than a storyteller, but on repeat listens certain themes emerge: unfulfilled commitment (“I Built A Town”), the urge to escape (“Connecticut To Carolina”) and the difficulty of redemption (“Miracle Temple Holiness”). Making use of gnarled details that could’ve been lifted from a Flannery O’Connor story or an episode of Pawn Stars—kettles, gardens, tan lines, scorpion trees—she infuses each song with a specificity that never feels overtly mannered or self-consciously novelistic. When it’s time for big good vs. evil dramatic gestures, she’s ready. “Get out of my heart,” she sings at one point. “Step into the light.”
The characters in these songs are united in their isolation. More than anything else, McEntire’s voice is the word “lonesome” given the gift of melody. Even when Miller stretches his notes out to accompany her singing, McEntire sounds painfully alone and hollowed out, like a car gutted for its spare parts but with a motor barely purring inside. Perhaps the best point of comparison doesn’t even come from the world of country: The album I kept thinking of while listening to Miracle Temple was EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, a similarly dark record that tuned emotional horrors and feelings of alienation into a beautiful, violent whisper. Lean in close, but don’t get licked by the flames.