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by George Graham
(Rounder Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/2/2020)
Folk groups are not as common as they once were back in the day. Many contemporary acoustic bands tend to be bluegrass oriented. Or else, the musical format is a singer-songwriter leader with an acoustic backing band. This week we have a mostly acoustic quartet with songwriting and vocal duties more evenly divided than is typical these days. The group is called Mipso, which is also the name of their new release.
Mipso are from North Carolina and released their debut recording in 2013 called Dark Holler Pop, which was noted for the group’s strong vocal harmonies, another trait of the old folk groups of the past. Mipso the album is their sixth release, but the first to get wider distribution. They brought in producer Sandro Perri, and recorded in Asheville, North Carolina. The four piece band lacks drums, but the new recording brought in some additional players like a drummer-percussionist for almost all the tracks, and some plus some keyboards and additional guitars. But the core sound is the quartet, with Joseph Terrell on most of the lead vocals and guitars, and also the most frequent songwriter. Libby Rodenbough plays fiddle and some banjo and also contributed several compositions to the album and is also featured on lead vocals on her songs. Rounding out the group are mandolinist and vocalist Jacob Sharp, and bassist Wood Robinson, who also does harmony vocals.
The result is an appealing and rather wide-ranging sound. Mipso transcends what the term folk group might conjure in people’s minds, with songs that span styles, and incorporate folk, some rock influence, hints of country twang with some steel guitar and added banjo. But the group also goes in for some interesting sonic textures in the context of their instrumentation such as playing melodic lines on an acoustic bass while muting the strings and also using a so called prepared piano. Lyrically, the songs are interesting, sometimes intriguing and some probably have explanations that might be helpful in understanding them. But the result is appealing and the band’s vocals are one of their strengths.
Opening is a track by most frequent songwriter Joseph Terrell called Never Knew You Were Gone, which shows a little contemporary country influence, and illustrates the band’s melodic sound with strong vocal harmonies. <<>>
Also by Joseph Terrell is a piece called Hey, Coyote, with nice sonic textures and intriguing lyrics. <<>>
More energetic in sound Hourglass co-written by mandolinist Jacob Sharp who takes on lead vocal duties. <<>>
One of the songs by fiddler Libby Rodenbough is Your Body and is one of the high points of the album. It was designated as the first official single release. The sound epitomizes the band’s approach to absorbing influences into their own agreeable stylistic amalgam. <<>>
Also by Terrell is a track called Caroline, a composition of rather few lyrics apparently designed to cheer up the song’s namesake. The sound is quite interesting with a kind of up-close semi-muted guitar but with a kind of atmospheric backdrop, and subtle vocal harmonies. <<>>
Another song that could have a potential as a single is Just Want to Be Loved with a memorable hook and another interesting auditory mix. <<>>
The band’s inventiveness with sonic textures, in the context of their rather conventional instrumentation, reaches its pinnacle on a track called Big Star, with Ms. Rodenbough on the lead vocal, on a rather opaque set of love-song lyrics. <<>>
The album ends with one of its more whimsical songs, Wallpaper Baby about the typical differences between lovers, clothed in a kind of country folk setting. <<>>
Mipso, the new sixth release by the North Carolina quartet by the same name, and the first by the band with wider distribution, is a most enjoyable album by the contemporary equivalent of a folk group, with largely acoustic instrumentation, shared songwriting and lead vocal duties, and first-rate harmonies. With the addition of drums and some other instrumentation, the album probably has a more produced sound than the band does when they have played live. But the production is quite tasteful, and the group defies the stereotype of a folk group with their interesting sonic textures, created with conventional, mostly acoustic instruments. The lyrics can be poetic to the point of inscrutablity, but in so doing, they avoid some of the cliches of the genre.
Our grade for sound quality approaches an “A,” with a mostly clean recording, with the vocal harmonies well-mixed, and inventive sound textures well-handled. But the lead vocals sound over-compressed and could have had better clarity.
Folk groups aren’t what they used to be and are certainly rarer than they were a long time ago, but Mipso on their new album expands the classic format into enjoyable, and yet interesting music.
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