Acoustic new-grass trio Mipso moves forward by looking back

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 3, 2013

Many popular bands have arisen out of North Carolina’s fertile musical landscape in recent years, but few have sprung up as fully-formed, professional and polished as the acoustic new-grass trio Mipso.

Musicians Joseph Terrell, Jacob Sharp and Wood Robinson ascended quickly to prominence in the UNC-Chapel Hill area, packing venues, recording an EP and then a full-length album, all the while remaining successful full-time students.

After graduating this past May, music became their vocation, and they have pursued the professional music path with zeal.

Since commencement, they have toured Japan and China in addition to traversing the Tarheel State, and now they have released a second full-length album, “Dark Holler Pop.”

Mipso hasn’t jumped on the indie-bluegrass-rock-punk bandwagon.

Unlike some groups that aggressively stretch their acoustic instruments to the limit, bending genres and breaking strings, Mipso selects and refines elements of current musical styles while enthusiastically embracing string band heritage.

As their new album’s title implies, they take pop to the past, shining a light into the dark hollows where old love songs and sad ballads dwell.

But while those traditional songs that came out of the woods largely recounted murder, infidelity and revenge, Mipso’s lyrics revolve around the modern human condition, themes of home, travel, love, human frailty, faith and doubt.

Terrell is primary songwriter for this album, and he’s an avid storyteller and fluent poet, accompanying his lyrics with his virtuosic guitar-playing. Terrell’s “A Couple Acres Greener,” the CD’s opening track, evokes restless emotion musically and lyrically.

He’s acutely aware that life is fleeting, and conflicted about the tug of war between enjoying the present or planning for the future: “I want my story to begin. There’s a time to save up and a time to spend.”

Terrell’s lyrics range from sublime to subtle humor, such as in the clever “Red Eye to Raleigh” where he suffers literally from a broken heart, with injured ventricles and aching atriums.

His song “When I’m Gone” is a stand-out on the album, with a rare, mournful beauty, and a style so rooted in the past you might think you are hearing a new arrangement of a traditional folk song.

Terrell could be a reincarnation of one of the balladeers who graced the stage of the original Grand Ole Opry.

That might explain his writing of this chorus: “When I’m gone, don’t you think of me. Don’t you place a rose upon my stone. Promise me you’ll never weep, tell the children I’m asleep, and sing holy, holy, holy as I make my journey home.”

Terrell has entrusted the vocal lead for “When I’m Gone” to bandmate Sharp, whose mellifluous voice is a perfect match for the song’s gently gleaming nostalgia.

In concerts, I have seen audiences transfixed by his pure, unique tenor, ranging from rich folk inflection in his lower tones to the remarkable weightlessness of his high range.

Sharp’s mandolin provides acoustic counterpoint to the group, and he contributes as a songwriter as well.

His “Do You Want Me” clings tenaciously in one’s ear, and it’s a good choice for closing out the album as it moves from straightforward folk into a bluesy outro, leaving the listener humming it afterwards.

Terrell and Sharp share composing credit on one of the most well-crafted songs in the collection, “Rocking Chair Blues” where a lazy pentatonic melody is suspended over a slow 6/8 waltz rhythm.

You can feel the rockers creaking on the porch boards; the steady pattern is only interrupted by swooping close-harmony vocals preceding the words “Every step off the front porch is a step into rocking chair blues.”

Rounding out and supporting Mipso’s distinctive sound is Robinson’s reliable upright bass. Whether providing steady bluegrass support or embellishing with jazz-influenced licks, he is the group’s heartbeat, sometimes felt more than heard, seeming content to stay out of the limelight, moving to the fore only when needed to contribute to the group’s tight and exciting three-part vocal harmonies.

Mipso was joined in the recording of this album by fiddler Libby Rodenbough who, for a while, toured regularly with the group.

Also featured on the album are Phil Cook of Megafaun, Chris Roszell of Big Fat Gap, Bobby Britt of Town Mountain, Chandler Holt and John Teer of Chatham County Line, vocalist Josh Moore, pianist James Wallace and Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange. Marlin is also producer of the album.

If you enjoy fresh acoustic folk by a new generation of troubadours, Dark Holler Pop is for you.

If you listened to Grateful Dead’s “Dark Hollow” in the 70s, this album is for you also. Before Bob Weir sang about that place “where the sun don’t never shine” and before Bill Monroe’s “Dark Hollow” and before Bill Browning appropriated songwriting credit in the 50s and before Clarence Ashley recorded “Dark Holler” in the 1920s, an anonymous Appalachian singer sang it.

Go way back there, and do you know what you’ll find? The genesis of Mipso.

Sarah Hall is a former Post lifestyle reporter who lives in Waynesville.