Considering that 2015's Old Time Reverie set Mipso atop Billboard's bluegrass chart and netted the band a performance in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Chapel Hill quartet should be strapped in for a meteoric ascent fueled by its fourth album, Coming Down the Mountain. Where Reverie enriched Mipso's relaxed folk-pop formula with instrumentation that reached beyond its string band origins, the record required attentive listening to reap the full rewards of hooks that unfolded slowly. Though Mipso remains a largely restrained outfit, Coming Down the Mountain's diverse charms are immediately apparent, and Mipso delivers them with verve.
From the outset of Coming Down the Mountain, Mipso meshes lush textures with clever songwriting and effortless hooks. The title track begins with steel guitar and a shuffle beat, laying the foundation for an alluring vocal and melody from fiddler Libby Rodenbough.
She has described the song's pastoral imagery as an allegory for checking out of, then slowly rejoining society. Rodenbough wrote the song before last fall's election, but it feels particularly relevant now. While Rodenbough was the band's secret weapon on Reverie—her first album with Mipso as a full-time member of the band—her role has elevated to that of a show-stealing star here. She wrote some of the album's most intriguing tracks, including the arresting "Cry Like Somebody," which offers a gorgeous pairing of Wurlitzer organ with mournful harmonies.
Even in more familiar territory, Mipso has simply grown better. "Hurt So Good" is a jaunty toe-tapper with killer four-part harmonies. Guitarist Joseph Terrell's homespun lyricism portrays a bittersweet but ultimately ill-fated relationship as "a dozen kisses and a dozen licks" or "a slip-n-slide ride on a minefield." Rodenbough's fiddle and Jacob Sharp's mandolin entwine with each other to score the wistful romanticism of "Train Down The Line," accompanied by a clip-clop rhythm that appropriately suggests a locomotive as bassist Wood Robinson finds a rhythm section partner in drummer Dan Westerlund.
Mountain sees several guest appearances that add memorable details without taking away from the brilliance of what Mipso's core quartet has accomplished with the help of producer Brad Cook. Sharp's contrasting vocal turn on "Hallelujah" is highlighted by barely-there flourishes of electric guitar from Josh Oliver. Mandolin Orange's Andrew Marlin similarly adds subtle accents of banjo on "My Burden with Me," allowing the soft, sweet, three-part harmonies to shine.
Closing on a dark note, the haunting, eerie mood of "Water Runs Red" fits the album's overall sense of cautious optimism. While Mountain is filled with tender revelations about home and growing older underscored with a slight sense of apprehension and regret, it also shows Mipso moving forward with confidence.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Next Levels."