H.C. McEntire's solo debut, Lionheart, is a rousing and soothing album of contemporary gospel country-rock, a genre reimagined and sung out in her Durham, NC living room by a former punk, Mount Moriah's lead singer Heather McEntire, who is often singing about her lovers, religion, family and the landscape of home.
McEntire grew up in rural North Carolina in a Christian household (she recently told The Independent that her family still has a hard time accepting that she's gay) so this return to something close to her country and gospel roots, to hymns, probably came as a surprise to McEntire herself. Apparently her friend and mentor, riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna, had a hand in this transition: after McEntire sent her seven years worth of solo demos, Hanna advised McEntire to head in the direction of pure country, and she did.
Lionheart feels honest and original, despite the fact that its heartfelt, twangy gospel also sounds kind of timeless. As a singer, McEntire reminds me a bit of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, while sounding as contemporary, if not as gritty, as Shovels & Rope. She's got a classic, endearing, powerful and shimmery vibrato, and brings poppy hooks and textures into this album, even as it's closer to traditional country than Mount Moriah.
Like Leonard Cohen, McEntire mixes romantic and spiritual metaphors in her songs, as on opener "A Lamb, A Dove," but unlike most Cohen acolytes, she manages this smoothly, not clumsily; her songwriting on Lionheart sounds truly inspired. It also sounds grounded in the real world; a spirituality rooted in living. Elsewhere, as on "When You Come For Me," McEntire is singing about where she came from, and where she might go to be buried eventually. In that song, she imagines herself literally cradled by the landscape of her childhood, a dark and complicated intimacy.
McEntire is joined on this collection of mostly ballads by a core group — Megafaun's Phil Cook, Daniel Faust and Ryan Gustafson — with a huge rotating cast of guests, including harpist Mary Lattimore, Allyn Love on pedal steel, and Tift Merritt and Angel Olsen on backing vocals. McEntire also plays in Olsen's band; and when Olsen sings, the record takes on an ephemeral sad-in-a-good way vibe, Merritt's and Gustafson's voices also blend with McEntire's terrifically, making Lionheart enjoyable on the level of a record of country duets as well. (Merge)