An Evening with Mipso
An Evening with Mipso
When Mipso’s 2013 debut, Dark Holler Pop, rose to #8 on Billboard’s Bluegrass charts, the success surprised a lot of people – Mipso’s four members included. “Well, we didn’t know so many people would buy it,” laughs mandolin player Jacob Sharp, “and we definitely didn’t know we were a bluegrass band.”
Since then, Mipso has performed over 300 shows and welcomed frequent collaborator Libby Rodenbough’s voice and fiddle to the fold – and has continued to grow as musicians and songwriters, while drawing continual inspiration from their rich North Carolina roots. Their new album, Old Time Reverie – produced by Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin – is a reflection of that musical and personal growth: a gripping, mature sophomore release that finds the quartet expanding their sonic resources while doubling down on their experimentation with string band tradition.
While the instrumentation on the acclaimed Dark Holler Pop embraced North Carolina’s bluegrass heritage head-on, Old Time Reverie finds Mipso shifting their focus away from bluegrass, introducing new instruments and textures to create a distinctly different sound. Clawhammer banjo out of 1920s early country music meets atmospheric electric organ (played by Josh Oliver of The Everybodyfields) more native to 1970s pop. Add imaginative songwriting and a group cohesion gained from two years of near-constant touring, and the resulting sound is powerfully rhythmic, lyrically sharp, and woven with beautiful four-part harmonies.
Before forming Mipso, Jacob Sharp (mandolin), Joseph Terrell (guitar), Wood Robinson (bass), and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle) were just classmates at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the experience of singing together in harmony drew them together. The sound of their blended voices remains one of the band’s hallmarks. Since those college jam sessions, the four have entered a new phase of life, one where the work of making music – and the work of living – has become a more complicated affair. Many of the songs on Old Time Reverie grapple with the moral ambiguity that comes with keeping hope in a difficult world and making sense of its contradictions.
These songs, after all, were born in the South and reflect its modern day complexity. “Our progressive college town shares a county with lots of old tobacco barns and farms and churches from the eighteenth century," guitarist Joseph Terrell said. "We've chosen to stick around in this place where we're rooted, to reckon with and learn from its contradictions.”
At times, the task seems doomed: “Everyone Knows” grapples with a world that is essentially “cold and dark,” “Mama” explores the enduring scars of loss; “Marianne” follows an interracial couple’s struggle to love one another against their community’s disapproval. But if Old Time Reverie conjures a dark vision of the world, it also meditates on points of radiance. Even the wary narrator in “Father’s House” can see “a light on the porch.” The album closer “Four Train,” too, is a crinkled smile at the end of a weary day, describing love as “like a stain that won’t come out” or “like a flame that won’t burn out” – or perhaps as both.
In both theme and temperament, the album finds an interplay between the sunrise and the twilight – a tug-of-war that’s itself an old-time tradition. From “Eliza,” a lively waltz-time romp, to “Bad Penny,” a surrealist dream sequence with an Abe Lincoln cameo, the album revels in the seesaw spectrum of experience and memory, where technicolor carnival hues blend with grown-up sadness and the whispers of ghosts. Mipso’s color palette, like its soundscape, is radically inclusive.
“We come from a place where traditional music is a living, changing thing,” fiddle player Libby Rodenbough said. “So we feel like having an ear for all kinds of stuff is not only true to ourselves, it’s a nod to the tradition.” Call it what you will – to listen is to understand: it’s either unlike anything you’ve heard before or effortlessly familiar. By digging deeper and expanding further, Mipso have created their own dark daydream of Southern Americana: Their Old Time Reverie.
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