Mount Moriah is sort of an ominous name for a band, and the cover to their new album – a photo of a burning farmhouse set against a colorless background – is plenty bleak itself. So I had fully expected Miracle Temple to take me somewhere dark; perhaps even to country music’s darkest depths. But Miracle Temple, the Chapel Hill act’s second album, is an almost jocular, if a bit stark, sendup of American pop traditions (barroom brawlers and country ballads and some blustery, southern guitar jams), with some post-punk twinges thrown into the mix. What binds the whole thing together is a sense of longing and of palpable, if in some cases literally juvenile, loss; and the evocation of forlorn avenues that each song inevitably finds itself crawling through.
Mount Moriah stray far from convention as far as country acts are concerned, preferring the darkly hooking chord progressions of 90s guitar groups like Radiohead (in their 90s guitar group phase), and modern southern alt-rock groups. Songs like “Bright Light” and the opener “Younger Days” rely on minor keyed chord diversions that make otherwise droll, or even static, songs seem fun. This isn’t to say that Miracle Temple is an unconventional album, and in fact its greatest strength is its successful handling of conventional material.
You’re still kept from drawing strict genre lines around the songs on Miracle Temple; Mount Moriah certainly seem to be a country group, but that’s mostly the doing of Heather McEntire’s voice. The guitar work tells a different story, easing comfortably between McEntire’s post-punk jangles and Jenk Miller’s big southern hooks. Miller lets the heaviness of his work as Horseback slip in by way of some long tonal hemorrhages, but he keeps the guitar from overwhelming more transitory aspects to the songs: the fiddles, the echoey drums, the crunchy bass.
You could call this a guitar album, and songs like “Miracle Temple Holiness” certainly serve as exhibitions of some big riffs. But Miracle Temple puts the guitar in the back, often behind the drums and the bass and the fiddles; often to my chagrin. On a song like “I Built a Town,” with a string section that wouldn’t be out of place on Magical Mystery Tour, Mount Moriah’s self-appointed genre, “secular gospel,” is most justified. But an oxymoronic descriptor like this onel has many of the same issues that “plastic soul” did in the sixties. Chief among them: with a notion like secularization comes something of a stopper on some of the passions that intrinsically define the musical movement being referenced. There are definitely times when this album seems like it could use something close to a religion – like it needs something to be fanatical about.
“Those Girls” is probably the album’s masterstroke; not because the song is necessarily doing something you haven’t heard before (it is not), but because it’s by-the-books alt-country done so well that you can’t help but wonder why other alt rock acts don’t just write songs like these. Mount Moriah make it seem so easy! In fact If there is something to be said about the songwriting on Miracle Temple, it’s that these songs sound like they came easily to the group. And while there is nothing mind-blowing about Miracle Temple, it is almost perfect in terms of its presentation, and a fully worthwhile listen.