Chapel Hill quartet Mipso return with new a new album, Coming Down The Mountain (April 7, 2017) -- ten songs of love and loss and forward motion, with words that sear and salve in turn, and music that invites you in to stay a while. Mipso ventures further than ever from their string-band pedigree to discover a broader Americana where classic folk-rock and modern alt-country mingle easily with Appalachian tradition.
It's an album aptly named, not only because the band finds purchase in a more pastoral sound, but also because of the stories they tell. These are songs about going somewhere or coming back, about our changing relationship to the idea of home, and about being pushed or pulled by forces bigger than us.
These North Carolinians cross a threshold too, adding drums for the first time in three LPs, and more electric instruments than ever to their four-part harmonies and powerful acoustic meld. The resulting album is a thing of wistful beauty, hopeful undercurrents, and panoramic soundscapes that impart intimacy.
Looking in from outside, Mipso didn't need to change much at all. Their 2015 album, Old Time Reverie, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart despite including sounds far afield from a Flatt and Scruggs record. Just a couple years before, guitarist Joseph Terrell, fiddler Libby Rodenbough, mandolin player Jacob Sharp, and bassist Wood Robinson were in college together at UNC-Chapel Hill, where they met for the first time even with being NC natives every one.
Now, it seems as if Mipso has been bringing their music to hungry audiences daily since, touring constantly, doing countless festivals, and even playing the odd nationally televised event (2015's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade) or political bash (2017's inaugural ball for their governor Roy Cooper).
Libby admits that all that movement takes a toll. "We hit a crazed state of being either hysterically happy or annoyed with each other. Food helps. We all agree on tacos," she says. "But travel becomes the lens we use to view everything."
Last summer, though their heads were full of songs about movement, Mipso decided to slow the world down. "Rather than put pedal to metal till we have a new album, we huddled," says Joseph. They stocked up on snacks and cases of La Croix, and set up for a week in a friend's barn on acreage usually used for growing garlic and, oddly, training dogs.
First they played each other the music they'd been listening to lately, and some inspirations stuck: the Band's singular sound, the openness of '70s Laurel Canyon fare, Whiskeytown's Gram Parsons-inspired '90s rock experiments, and how Gillian Welch's Soul Journey perfectly bridged acoustic to electric.
"We talked about adding drums and electric guitar like it was a huge symbolic shift," Joseph continues, "We joked about people yelling 'Judas!' from the crowd.” But they plugged in all the same, discovered that the change in sound wasn't so much of a departure after all, work-shopped demos occasionally interrupted by packs of dogs chasing birds past the big windows, and ultimately took that looseness with them to the studio.
If it seems like the twin influences of tour angst and homey ease would be at odds, Coming Down The Mountain's titular opener puts that lie to rest. It's melancholic and lush, with pedal steel and a subtle bass groove framing Libby's lines about returning to a flawed society after a period of isolation, weary but driven. On "Spin Me Round," the fiddle sighs and soars while Jacob sings of a similar duality in love, concluding that the relationship's troubles are actually what keep it interesting.
Meanwhile, the rambler "Talking in My Sleep" with hints of Heart of Gold-era Neil Young era juxtaposes the comfort of home's dependability with the feeling of, as Joseph says, wanting to "kick a chair over, slam the door, and beat out of town." And though the spare duet "Cry Like Somebody" plays like a scathing dig at a ex, it's self-directed, as Libby explains, "to give myself a kick for crying for reasons other than real hardship—you only think as romantically as I do if you grew up with food on the table." Internal conflict is a powerful engine.
While there are joyful tunes like coming-of-age clod-kicker "Hurts So Good," Coming Down The Mountain is all the more memorable for what it does with loss—take the delicate folk fable "My Burden with Me," or funeral lament "Monterey County" with mournful pedal steel by Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Tift Merritt). The dirge-like closer "Water Runs Red" was inspired partly by Flint's water crisis, and Jacob's lilting "Hallelujah" by the 2016 Orlando tragedy. "Music is my religion these days," he says. "I find the most hope in songs and the communities that love them."
Mipso are well supported on album too, of course, with Megafaun's Brad Cook producing and a cast of North Carolina’s finest pitching in. In fact, if there's a guiding force here, it's the mercurial, imperfect nature of the very state that made Mipso. “North Carolina’s complicated. But I wouldn’t want to live in L.A, where it’s 70 degrees every day and everyone agrees with me," says Joseph.
But Mipso thrive in the difference. That's why they needed change. That's why we need them.
Joseph Terrell (guitar, vocals)
Wood Robinson (bass, vocals)
Libby Rodenbough (fiddle, vocals)
Jacob Sharp (mandolin, vocals)