[Merge; 2013]

At first sight Mount Moriah frontwoman Heather McEntire could easily be accused of being stuck in the same place too long. Her songs come off like wistful observations of a small town going about its normal business. “Normal” is far from objective, though, and her songs reveal the seedy underlayer of a small town, fuelled by alcohol and adultery. Showing that as demoralizing as this day to day life is, the chains appear to be locked and the only escape is to dream or to be thankful it’s a step up from what came before.

That’s a generic version of the picture McEntire painted on self-titled debut from Mount Moriah, and come the end of the record, there was a calming of sorts with the six minute “Hail, Lightening” where McEntire accepted that love, pain, regret, sorrow, and all other emotions are just part of the human condition. “If I die right now, I would die knowing/ When we dry, we will cry, we will love/ We are awake, we are alive, and we know,” she sang in a refreshed tone, like the way you feel after you’ve cried all your tears and can see more clearly. She might be stuck in the same place, but she learned to find happiness with what she had.

On the new album, Miracle Temple, there’s a push and pull between finding escape and staying put. On opening track she recalls the past where the “big city” world was merely a place known through the stories of those who had been there. “Big city lights have really got to be a drag/ August is over so when are you coming back?” she sings in a Dolly Parton-esque voice, capturing that glimmering eyes sound of a waiting, excited child. It’s a memory, though, and McEntire spends Miracle Temple feeding off times past as well as travelling, even if it is within the confines of her own state, North Carolina.

Compared to Mount Moriah, McEntire isn’t quite as scathing on Miracle Temple. There’s no standout lyric like “A mouthful of bees/ Couldn’t stop me/ From whispering/ I don’t love you” from “Lament.” On “Those Girls” from the new album, McEntire sings cautiously, “Those girls will do anything to turn your head/ Give a little bit of vodka tonic compliment,” which sounds more like a warning to a man than anything else. But just because there’s nothing directly similar to before doesn’t mean that Miracle Temple doesn’t deal lyrics that can’t catch you out. This time, however, they’re darker and seem to address the effect time has on physical and emotional scars. “I built a house behind my eyes/ I sewed a veil/ I grew flowers to cut, towers to hold you high/ But there was nothing I could do to keep you inside,” she sings on “I Built A Town,” caught somewhere between a dream world and past reality.

The most instantly notable feature of Miracle Temple is the sound and production. There’s an impressive amount of sound and instrumentation for a trio. The consequence is that McEntire doesn’t stand out quite as well as last time, and can easily get lost in the tight, economical work from her bandmates. Her lyrics are still worth taking the time to listen for and consider, but it feels like work. On Mount Moriah she shone above it all, and on a track like “Social Wedding Rings” her voice hit like a whip crack at the right moment. The opening pair of tracks here, the aforementioned “Younger Days” and “Bright Light” makes for a good introduction with fresh, invigorated guitar, keys and drums but attention wanes a little after that until the better songs kick in. It feels almost hurtful to say that they can easily come off a solid indie-country band you might encounter one night at a bar but will have forgotten about the next morning.

The latter half of the album holds those better tracks, and they stand out with their brooding tension and darker sheen. “Miracle Temple Holiness” has McEntire taking her voice on a ride, trying out a sharper tone, and it effectively cuts through the fidgeting guitar and streaks of violin whereas on final track “Telling the Hour” everyone sounds like they’re playing for everything. It’s one of the rare occasions for the band where the song sounds draped in atmosphere, which is fitting as McEntire is blunt yet darkly poetic about what sounds like physical abuse from the past: “Gimme scars so dark/ I will have no choice but to remember…And let regret swell inside/ Let it strike my body fast.” It’s again sung from somewhere inbetween, but this time she sounds like she’s trying to fight back from the pain. The final line of the song reveals McEntire herself as the perpetrator: “Like flies in a jar, I am most harmless/ Except for this vanishing hour of darkness.” It might be addressing another small town affair (or the aftermath of one), but it shows that there’s lasting pain and torment for everyone–even in places that come off as dull and ordinary to an outsider.

Miracle Temple might prove that there’s still tales from North Carolina to feed off of, even if some of them are particularly dark. But that’s the thing with small towns: Get stuck in them too long and you can only dream of an escape. For McEntire, dreams may need to become reality to inspire a better selection of songs.

Grade: 68%