Chapel Hill quartet Mipso fuses acoustic and electric in ‘Coming Down the Mountain’

By Carson Risser

April 7, 2017

Chapel Hill-based string quartet Mipso released their third full-length album, Coming Down the Mountain, on Friday. For their second album, Old Time Reverie, the indie-folk band made the decision to add banjo and electric piano to the mix, and this new release comes the addition of electric guitar and percussion. Drummer Yan Westerlund joins Mipso on their current tour.

‘Coming Down the Mountain’ album cover art.

Singer and guitarist Joseph Terrell said that Mipso’s sound was originally born out of an exploration of traditional, bluegrass, and old-time styles. “From the beginning, the type of band we wanted to be was a band where all of our voices would blend in harmony, and also more metaphorically, in terms of our musical personalities,” said Terrell. “When we were making (Coming Down the Mountain), it felt natural to stretch our legs a little bit, bring Yan on the drums, and have a little bit of electricity going on in there.”

That fusion of genres is exemplified in songs like the opening title track. The acoustic chords sing of mountaintops and folk tradition, the electric guitar of small towns and country music, and the soft layered vocals of the chorus something entirely new. It’s gentle and comforting and maybe a little bit sad. The genre? Let’s call it Mipso.

Left to right: Joseph Terrell (Guitar), Jacob Sharp (Mandolin), Libby Rodenbough (Fiddle), and Wood Robinson (Bass). Photo by Sarah Israel

“We’re known as a North Carolina band, and we’re proud of that,” said Terrell. “I take that as a great compliment of what we do, because our music is associated with this place that we love, that we come from, that’s taught us so much.”

The harmonies of Terrell, Rodenbough, Sharp, and Wood Robinson (bass) fill each song like the Blue Ridge Mountains fill a skyline. Lead vocals switch from person to person depending on the song, but there’s always a presence of blended voices, from the chorus of lead single “Hurts So Good” to “Talking in My Sleep,” an upbeat song about the anxiety surrounding life and work (“I’ve got half a mind to move uptown/Tidy up and settle down/…/But all those buildings make me nervous”).

Left to right: Wood Robinson (Bass), Libby Rodenbough (Fiddle), Jacob Sharp (Mandolin), ), and Joseph Terrell (Guitar). Photo by Sarah Israel

The album closer, “Water Runs Red,” might most explicitly show how Coming Down the Mountain layers to build new sound. It starts softly, a few chords repeating as Rodenbough sings, “The chimney leaks in the winter/Like a mother’s lost her head/And the water runs red.” Harmony vocals come in, then percussion. “The darkness tends to spread/and the water runs red.” Strings enter, and finally Robinson’s bass, all emphasizing or playing off those steady chords from the beginning.

When the drums kick up and Sharp, Terrell, and Robinson start introducing faster melodies to the layers, Rodenbough trades vocal line for fiddle and the band plays slow and quick at the same time, building instrumentation from the ground up. The subtle combination results in a composition that is deep and intense. As Terrell said about playing setlists with both percussive and acoustic sections, it’s about juxtaposition. “Both sides make the other one feel that much more vibrant,” said Terrell.

The genre? Let’s call it Mipso.

Watch the video for “Hurst So Good” from the new album Coming Down The Mountain by Mipso:

Listen to the new album Coming Down the Mountain by Mipso:

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