Nominally, Mount Moriah is a country-rock band. As the modifier suggests, Heather McEntire's voice is tender but tough, her slight drawl held closely by high, sympathetic harmonies on the band's eponymous debut. Her lyrics work through references to red clay, church pews and soil turned by hands, too, Southern signifiers of McEntire's Western North Carolina roots. As rock goes, the guitars of McEntire and Jenks Miller are most often electric, given to surfeits of distortion that make their melodies jut like jetties through a simple rhythm section that's steadfast and crackling.
But Mount Moriah doesn't fit any of the general country-rock molds. McEntire mostly sings about love and loss, sure, but she avoids maudlin tales of toothless heartache. Instead, she grounds her words with the sort of details and images that suggest she's relaying distillations of her real life. "If this will be anything, then let it be over," she offers over an organ's peal and Miller's serpentine guitar line on "Lament." The frontwoman of post-punk trio Bellafea, McEntire treats Mount Moriah's different sounds with the same welcome directness, venting her invective and pondering the past with the earnest attention of a young firebrand. During "Lament," she demands a decision; across Mount Moriah, she moves with much more resolve and purpose than pity.
What's more, Miller plays lead guitar with an elliptical calm that's not beholden to the showmanship often heard from country or rock instrumentalists. For a guy who also leads the heavy metal band Horseback, guitar solos here are remarkably limited and often elementary, played with a restraint and musical vernacular that suggest a humble back-porch picker. "Reckoning," for instance, is McEntire's plea to her mother to accept her daughter's sexuality. "If your old book says it's true/ back of your knees locked to the seat of the pew/ With fierceness painful and pure/ I will reckon you," she sings in the chorus after delivering the news that the love of her life is a woman. Before the last verse, Miller takes a rare solo; it's slow and snaking, rendered with a few choice notes. Like McEntire explaining herself to her mother, Miller is trying to make the news as easy to understand as possible, phrased in a language that's plain and logical. It's not that Miller can't get fancy. Rather, a little like George Harrison or Bill Frisell, he chooses not to, opting instead to insert the proper textures and tones in the most perfect places. That Spartan approach mirrors McEntire's lyrical search for le mot juste; everything is considered and collected.
Mount Moriah's mix of styles—a country template branded with rock tones, both tempered by punk impulses—possibly isn't postmodern enough for the 2011 market, where unfocused, exclamatory pastiche often passes for innovative, eclectic ideas. There are no Afrobeat infusions here, no headlong, sans-transition plunges into undeveloped drones or atmospheres. No, Mount Moriah is too patient, careful and diligent for that. Instead, these are carefully written and carefully played songs, beholden to nothing more than the very personal tales they tell. McEntire and Mount Moriah give her set of memories—delays and layovers on the way to meet a long-distance lover, lustful nights spent on roofs of bars, bellyaches based on gin and raw nerves—more respect than that. They play songs about the past as if they're studying what has happened so as to make a better plan for the future.
That future arrives during the last two songs of Mount Moriah, after McEntire has relayed her travails and even told her mother: On "We Don't Need That Much," she and her lover break from society into a sort of monastic sanctuary, escaping former anxieties for a life of "flannel shirts and coffee in camping cups." Over a simple banjo trot, the image suggests the sort of heaven her mother's "old book" might never have imagined. And on closer "The Hail, The Lightning," McEntire finally sees her troubles as a prelude to future promise. "We are awake, we are alive, and we know," she howls, hinting at the storms she summons in Bellafea, adding tension to the organ and fiddle creaks. It's the sound of country being rocked at the foundations.