When she finished a two-year tour with Angel Olsen, H.C. McEntire retreated to her farm by the Eno River in North Carolina. There, listening to the rhythms of life at home, she created Eno Axis, an album that reflects on a different way of life, one that is traditionally untraditional. Caught deep within the southern culture of life in and around Durham, she was also able to reflect on some of her own less than traditional choices.
The electric piano opening ‘Hands for the Harvest’ sets the scene just as well as McEntire’s lyrics, “Early rise/ Start the Fire/ Till the rows/ Pass the tithes” enter into the basis of southern farm life. Yet H.C. McEntire is very much her own woman. On ‘Footman’s Coat’ she reflects on choices not made, “In a different life/ I’d have taken on your name/ Given you a child/ Given you everything.” Amidst the banjo and steel guitar there’s not so much sadness as an admission that her path must go in a different direction.
McEntire works within a traditional, conservative country traditional, yet as an openly lesbian artist she pushes the edges of what is considered culturally acceptable in the south. That’s especially true on ‘One Eye Open’, where in two minutes she juxtaposes the traditional Southern Baptist Sunday School with, “That criss-cross flag is flapping in the wind/ And the crosses burn/ ‘Til the morning.” That’s a whole lot to consider.
The swirling instrumental ‘Sunday Morning’ works into ‘Time, On Fire’, an intriguing track that plays with the sensibilities, working from a simple strummed refrain to a chugging chorus and guitar solo. Even better is McEntire’s stripped back reading of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the Holy’. Instead of the swagger of Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones, we get something much simpler, initially just guitar and bass as McEntire sings, “Let me take you to a move/ Can I take you to a show?” There’s a questioning to this that Plant can’t touch, the vulnerability humanising the tune.
The cover of Eno Axis shows a wheat field being threshed by an old machine, which is in some respects is a perfect metaphor for this collection. Because, from her home on the Eno River H.C. McEntire can look out over a world bathed in the past, yet trying to keep pace with progress that seems to be steaming along. How do we live in both places at the same time? There seem to be no easy answers, but the banks of the Eno seem to be a perfect location for contemplating the questions.