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Listening to bluegrass, pop and local music with Mipso

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Mipso is not a college band anymore.

Mipso Trio began four years ago on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The sweet and simple acoustic act found quick favor among their peers. Guitarist Joseph Terrell, bassist Wood Robinson and mandolin player Jacob Sharp made for a green, particularly earnest addition to North Carolina's coterie of folk musicians, qualities that could sometimes make their music listlessly pleasant.

But things have changed: They dropped the "Trio," and Libby Rodenbough joined the group full-time after she graduated from UNC last year. In the interim, Mipso have trekked across the country for weeks at a time, steadily upping their gusto and strengthening their chops. Their harmonies have gotten richer, their writing better.

Their new LP, Old Time Reverie, is another push forward, boasting the dark surrealist ballad of "Bad Penny" alongside more tender tunes like "Down in the Water" and "Stranger." It's a confident but measured step for the still-young outfit.

After a short nine-day run to Ohio, Terrell, Rodenbough and Robinson met at Terrell's Chapel Hill home to discuss bluegrass, pop songs and the next generation of great American bands—and how they're taking cues from all of the above.

KRISTIN ANDREASSEN, "'SIMMON"

(Kristin Andreassen will open Mipso's Friday night release show. Her new record, February's Gondolier, features beautiful folk songs surrounded by unexpected ornamentation.)

JOSEPH TERRELL: I love her because she comes from an old-time background, and she's a great clogger and dancer and does body percussion, which is awesome and unique. She plays fiddle. But she plays with an interesting lineup always, and she often plays with a bass clarinetist, a guy named Alec Spiegelman, who lives in New York, who adds a really amazing element to the more folky stuff. It's a texture you're not used to hearing with anything remotely folky.

LIBBY RODENBOUGH: But then, it's perfect. Sometimes throwing in an element that's a little off somehow makes it a whole sonic landscape. It's a weird, counterintuitive thing.

MANDOLIN ORANGE, "OLD TIES AND COMPANIONS"

(Mipso tapped their longtime pal Andrew Marlin, half of the duo Mandolin Orange, to produce Old Time Reverie. This song comes from Mandolin Orange's latest LP, May's Such Jubilee.)

JT: Andrew has been a friend of ours for a long time and was a friend of ours before we were in the band. A couple of our first shows, we played with Mandolin Orange. Though they're definitely older and wiser and farther along, we've benefitted a lot from learning from them.

LR: This album is a really, really cohesive album. There were fewer moments where I thought, "Single! Single!" on this one, but I thought the whole album was a perfect work in its entirety.

JT: Andrew's a great songwriter. Andrew and Emily have a special chemistry that's really rare. They're a great duo that, to me, has entered the Mount Rushmore of great man-woman duets in American music. This record is a great example of how they're a great trio, too. Josh Oliver is, in some ways, part of the band. He has some moments on this record, as he did on This Side of Jordan, where the harmony and his third instrument fills it out and makes it awesome.

MEGAFAUN, "WORRIED MIND"

(Megafaun's Brad Cook produced a version of "Down In The Water," a song written by Rodenbough that first appeared on the band's Faces EP. A more traditional acoustic arrangement appears on Old Time Reverie.)

LR: The song he produced was one I wrote and the first song of mine that we did any recording for. It was really crazy and special to me to hear my song become a real, recorded thing. I hope that we'll work with Brad again some time. He has the best, happiest energy. That band, they really do total genuineness in a really great way. They're having fun and being really interesting musically, but it's nothing ironic or cool or snide.

JT: We've talked about this as a band, but they're carrying the torch of classic American rock 'n' roll in a way that not a lot of people are—Hiss Golden Messenger, too. I would just put them in the category of "Great American Rock Band."

PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson

STURGILL SIMPSON, "TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN"

(During the past two years, Simpson has been hailed as one of the best new voices in Americana, using outlaw country aesthetics to new ends on last May's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.)

JT: He's great. He has that completely classic Waylon, Hank Jr. outlaw country voice. But he's a guy whose time had come, and he had the perfect media story at the right time. Everyone turned and looked at him at the same time and was like, "Yep! Believably classic. He's in the party."

WOOD ROBINSON: It's the modern take on the Merle Haggard thing.

LR: It's the meta-modern take, I think.

WR: This actually almost reminds me of a Ween record, without the crazy—the production element, with kind of the phasing effect throughout the whole thing.

PAUL SIMON, "GRACELAND"

(The members of Mipso agree that Simon's 1986 hit record is a masterpiece. Its sparkling title track is an easy choice.)

JT: One of the stories of recording this song was Paul Simon went down there to take some of the South African influence, but this guy Ray [Phiri] said when he was playing the song, he was imitating what a Nashville guitar player would have done on a country record. So, Paul Simon was imitating a South African sound, while the South African guitarist was imitating what he imagined would have been a country sound. It wasn't so much straight-ahead theft or assimilation; it was this weird mixing and melding of awesome musicians.

LR: It's another great example of some unexpected instrumental elements being so important. The sound of this record is incredibly distinctive, but not off-putting. It's very, very listenable.

WR: He could have easily just stuck with the Simon & Garfunkel thing, wrote really great songs and sang with a guitar. But he was like, "Screw that, I'm going to make fucking awesome pop records."

RANDY NEWMAN, "LOUISIANA 1927"

(From Simon, we jump to another pop song master. This short tune offers a poignant perspective on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.)

LR: This is one of the best examples of a story song. It's a perfect narrative. It's pretty bare-bones. It's only three verses, and they're pretty short, but he perfectly lays out this complex historical event and the aftermath. And it's such a simple chorus, but it hits you in the gut.

JT: Ninety-five percent of pop songs are about love, and Randy Newman is an example of someone who writes songs about really different stuff—historical events and ideas, funny songs. It's inventive.

THE SELDOM SCENE, "AFTER MIDNIGHT"

(This 1981 cover of Eric Clapton's classic sparks an extended discussion of old-school and newer styles of bluegrass.)

JT: A lot of modern bluegrass is really sterile and boring and formulaic. But Bill Monroe was a renegade to the highest degree. He's screaming. It was basically rock 'n' roll before rock 'n' roll. And then the banjo came in—it was like a modern racecar. That was before the electric guitar was a thing. It was a loud, brash, metallic, modern sound. They weren't going for something traditional and pristine. It was just raw and cool young-person energy.

LR: The rawness is what I'm attracted to with early old-time stuff—these weird, funky voices, strange modalities, very strange harmonizing. I like the old, weird America.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Manifest destination"

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