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Record review: Mipso's Old Time Reverie

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Early in their career, Mipso seemed determined to defy conventions in the ways you would expect from a trio of college kids aiming to revitalize acoustic Appalachian traditions. The group's playful spirit and an array of modern influences led to live, string-based covers of pop hits by Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, The Beatles and The Police; various video sessions yielded acoustic treatments of the Drake R&B hit "Hold On, We're Going Home" and the George Michael smash "Careless Whisper." Mipso was daring and fun in those endeavors, adding an edge to their fare. But their studio efforts trended toward pleasant folk-pop—well-executed and fine, but too often tame and polite.

On Old Time Reverie, Mipso's third full-length album and first since bringing fiddle player and vocalist Libby Rodenbough fully into the fold, the quartet attempts to curb that plainness, to tap into an unrealized ability to balance adventure with maturity. While the album's tempo barely breaks beyond a moderate clip, Mipso's three songwriters test themselves with atypical material almost as frequently as they resort to their tried-and-true charms. Propelled by Rodenbough's soaring fiddle, the brisk toe-tapper "Bad Penny" recounts a fever dream where Abraham Lincoln stalks the narrator through modern Manhattan. "Marianne" takes on the perspective of an interracial couple in 1960s North Carolina, with fiddle cutting like a knife through the emotional tension. It's a challenging but fertile topic for a young Southern string band, especially now, but one that guitarist Joseph Terrell approaches so obliquely his message might be missed. Still, the effort is indicative of the young writer's attempts to reconcile today's American South with the stains of its history and to push the group beyond easy ideas and themes.

Rodenbough delivers the real standouts to Old Time Reverie. On "Down in the Water" and "Everyone Knows," her vocals are captivating and cool, presiding over atmospheric arrangements with world-weary lyrics. The former tune winds a ruminative melody around clawhammer banjo and bits of organ, while the latter's sparse fiddle and guitar echo lyrical resignation. Rodenbough's addition has made Mipso a more provocative and magnetic band at just the perfect time.

Even when Mipso reverts to more comfortable territory, the results are more satisfying than before, even if they're still predictable. The memorable refrain of "Stranger" rings with sweet harmonies, belying the loping song's melancholy undercurrent of unrequited love. And "Captain's Daughter" fits a jaunty tune to an ill-fated tale of longing. The twinkle in the protagonist's eye is audible, making the scenario that much more tragic. Mipso, then, have gotten better at being the endearing acoustic act they've always been while realizing that's not quite enough for them to stand out—a potent combination that makes Old Time Reverie their best work yet.

Label: Robust Records

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