Baby, do you like to dance? Do you like it slow, or sorta fast?
Mount Moriah is a band built around landscape, from the name on down, but few musicians can cram an empire of dirt into a lyric the way Heather McEntire can. On How to Dance, McEntire and her cohort stretch their limbs, waltzing cross-country toward San Francisco, through Missouri, past the dewy lakes of California, down toward Virginia and Georgia, then up, into sticky constellations. Certainly, these are southern songs, but the real trick of the south is the way in which its spirit pervades more locales than those in the latitudes and longitudes of Dixie. This is Mount Moriah’s third album, and the one where the trio have hit their stride with grit and charm. McEntire is flanked at all times by lead guitarist Jenks Miller and bassist Casey Toll—both take on keys, too—and the trio operate like a Godhead, three in one. Rarely is a band as cohesive as these three, flowing thick and rich like honey over songs that sound like their subjects: rocky soil, briar, smoke, gnarled roots, and existential aching. “The highest soul has the whitest spark,” she prophecies on “Precita,” a torch song for the cowpunk cosmic set, and you can almost hear her looking up, mired in unsated longing, searching the sky for a pinprick of an omen.
Some take this earnestness as a sign of softness, the spilled weakness of exposure, but here, in chiseled slowcore country, it proves to be more like hardened steel and a brave testament to the pursuit of the light. After all, a soul exposed is far more likely to find its twin flame than a closeted one. These are intimate tracks, but the songwriting is wiry, strong enough to bear the gravity of Greek myth and filter it through dusty gothic on “Chiron (God in the Brier).” Roiling guitar lines and brass spike and plunge like a steep, precarious trail on opener “Calvander,” but always right themselves before the next chorus begins to unspool. “Are you the woman you wanted to be?” McEntire asks on “Cardinal Cross,” thrusting the question forward like a cross at a vampire. It’s not a southern, or even country question, but a human one. Do you live up? Is it too late? Is your myth worth telling?
My late grandfather, a Texan by birth, often described things he found impressively ferocious as “tougher than rawhide and barbed wire.” That distinction seems more than apt for How to Dance, where McEntire lets her voice swagger and slice through the blues, and bores meaning into the simplest, most mundane phrases. The clearest example of this is on the album’s elegant title track, “How To Dance,” a country song wrung out like an old wash rag and dipped back into the barroom ballad bucket. The last time a question held this much weight, this much longing, was when Neil Young asked us if we were passionate. Of course, it’s not about the dance, or the dream, or even the passion, it’s about the question—a contract between asker and listener. It’s an invitation for an answer already anticipated, a finger beckoning you toward a journey. As steel guitar blisters along the edges of this country lullaby, the tough questions at the heart of the album come into focus: Do you want the silent kind of fear? How To Dance howls back a retort, slicing through silence and fear with an album that’s tough, tender, and most of all, full of light.