Chapel Hill quartet Mipso return with new a new album, Coming Down The Mountain — ten songs of love and loss and forward motion, with words that sear and salve in turn, and music that invites you in to stay a while. Mipso ventures further than ever from their string-band pedigree to discover a broader Americana where classic folk-rock and modern alt-country mingle easily with Appalachian tradition.
It’s an album aptly named, not only because the band finds purchase in a more pastoral sound, but also because of the stories they tell. These are songs about going somewhere or coming back, about our changing relationship to the idea of home, and about being pushed or pulled by forces bigger than us.
These North Carolinians cross a threshold too, adding drums for the first time in three LPs, and more electric instruments than ever to their four-part harmonies and powerful acoustic meld. The resulting album is a thing of wistful beauty, hopeful undercurrents, and panoramic soundscapes that impart intimacy.
Looking in from outside, Mipso didn’t need to change much at all. Their 2015 album, Old Time Reverie, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart despite including sounds far afield from a Flatt and Scruggs record. Just a couple years before, guitarist Joseph Terrell, fiddler Libby Rodenbough, mandolin player Jacob Sharp, and bassist Wood Robinson were in college together at UNC-Chapel Hill, where they met for the first time even with being NC natives every one.
Now, it seems as if Mipso has been bringing their music to hungry audiences daily since, touring constantly, doing countless festivals, and even playing the odd nationally televised event (2015’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) or political bash (2017’s inaugural ball for their governor Roy Cooper).
Libby admits that all that movement takes a toll. “We hit a crazed state of being either hysterically happy or annoyed with each other. Food helps. We all agree on tacos,” she says. “But travel becomes the lens we use to view everything.”
Last summer, though their heads were full of songs about movement, Mipso decided to slow the world down. “Rather than put pedal to metal till we have a new album, we huddled,” says Joseph. They stocked up on snacks and cases of La Croix, and set up for a week in a friend’s barn on acreage usually used for growing garlic and, oddly, training dogs.
First they played each other the music they’d been listening to lately, and some inspirations stuck: the Band’s singular sound, the openness of ’70s Laurel Canyon fare, Whiskeytown’s Gram Parsons-inspired ’90s rock experiments, and how Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey perfectly bridged acoustic to electric.
“We talked about adding drums and electric guitar like it was a huge symbolic shift,” Joseph continues, “We joked about people yelling ‘Judas!’ from the crowd.” But they plugged in all the same, discovered that the change in sound wasn’t so much of a departure after all, work-shopped demos occasionally interrupted by packs of dogs chasing birds past the big windows, and ultimately took that looseness with them to the studio.
If it seems like the twin influences of tour angst and homey ease would be at odds, Coming Down The Mountain’s titular opener puts that lie to rest. It’s melancholic and lush, with pedal steel and a subtle bass groove framing Libby’s lines about returning to a flawed society after a period of isolation, weary but driven. On “Spin Me Round,” the fiddle sighs and soars while Jacob sings of a similar duality in love, concluding that the relationship’s troubles are actually what keep it interesting.
Meanwhile, the rambler “Talking in My Sleep” with hints of Heart of Gold-era Neil Young era juxtaposes the comfort of home’s dependability with the feeling of, as Joseph says, wanting to “kick a chair over, slam the door, and beat out of town.” And though the spare duet “Cry Like Somebody” plays like a scathing dig at a ex, it’s self-directed, as Libby explains, “to give myself a kick for crying for reasons other than real hardship—you only think as romantically as I do if you grew up with food on the table.” Internal conflict is a powerful engine.
While there are joyful tunes like coming-of-age clod-kicker “Hurts So Good,” Coming Down The Mountain is all the more memorable for what it does with loss—take the delicate folk fable “My Burden with Me,” or funeral lament “Monterey County” with mournful pedal steel by Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Tift Merritt). The dirge-like closer “Water Runs Red” was inspired partly by Flint’s water crisis, and Jacob’s lilting “Hallelujah” by the 2016 Orlando tragedy. “Music is my religion these days,” he says. “I find the most hope in songs and the communities that love them.” Mipso are well supported on album too, of course, with Megafaun’s Brad Cook producing and a cast of North Carolina’s finest pitching in. In fact, if there’s a guiding force here, it’s the mercurial, imperfect nature of the very state that made Mipso. “North Carolina’s complicated. But I wouldn’t want to live in L.A, where it’s 70 degrees every day and everyone agrees with me,” says Joseph.
But Mipso thrive in the difference. That’s why they needed change. That’s why we need them.
Roots-loving, Nashville-based, foot-stomping string quintet Forlorn Strangers is simultaneously innovative and steeped in the tradition of Americana-Folk music. Entertaining comparisons to an “Americana Fleetwood Mac”, Forlorn Strangers are comprised of five unique songwriters whose individual songwriting and performance styles complement one another to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Beyond a like-minded appreciation for roots music, family ties add to the band dynamic: Abigail and Hannah are sisters, and Hannah and Ben are married. According to band members, family is better described as the foundation for the music than an influence — and that feeling of closeness isn’t limited to those related by blood. “We are all family,” says Chris. “We have done a lot of life together, and out of that comes what makes our band more than just five people singing together.” On a practical level, the band’s deep connection also lends strength to its unforgettable five-part harmonies featuring bandmembers Abigail Dempsey (fiddle, percussion, vocals); Hannah Leigh Lusk (mandolin, percussion, upright bass, vocals); Chris Banke (guitar, mandolin, vocals); Benjamin Lusk (banjo, guitar, vocals); and Jesse Thompson (upright bass, dobro, guitar, vocals).
The musicians’ magnetism and sheer talent shine brightest when they join forces on stage. They know the potential for music to bring people together, and they mine that potential every time they take the stage in order to create that mystical and intimate relationship between audience and performer. Each member is a multi-instrumentalist and a talented songwriter in his or her own right, making for eclectic and transformative live performances. With so many musical points of view converging, electric and acoustic instruments mix, and the lines between genres are regularly crossed. Blues, bluegrass, folk, rock and pop songs are all found in the band’s repertoire, drawing inspiration from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, The Band, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Forlorn Strangers are just wrapping up a vagabond lifestyle having spent more than nineteen months on the road touring unflaggingly in support of and in advance of their 2016 self-titled debut LP. That album, Forlorn Strangers, was recorded at John Prine’s Nashville studio, The Butcher Shoppe, with producer and Grammy-winner Phil Madeira at the helm. With Madeira’s guidance, the band created a 10-track album that weaves together five different songwriters and a range of styles. The goal, says the band, was to develop each song as deeply and honestly as possible, while still creating a seamless, whole album. Madeira pushed the members to the next level, exploring unusual instrumentation and musical rabbit holes that the band may not have delved into otherwise.
The end result is a balance of dynamic hooks, driving melodies and reflective lyrics that cut right to the heart. Each song reveals a new facet of the band, with different members taking the lead on vocals throughout the album. The opening track, “Bottom of the Barrel”, features the band’s natural harmonies and multi-instrumentalist members. Contemporary and traditional sounds are mixed with timeless themes like love lost and tough times on tracks like “Sugarcane” and “O My Friends”.
The end of 2016 will find Forlorn Strangers returning to their Nashville home base where they will continue to write and record in 2017. And although the band is happy to be home for the time being as opposed to living out of a van and crashing on couches for friends and strangers, they also can’t wait to do it all over again. “If all you do is watch the news, you’d think the world is going directly to hell in a handbasket,” says Chris. “But we’ve been fed, clothed, and sheltered by more strangers over the months than you’d believe, and it’s nice to know firsthand that love is alive and well.”
The release of Forlorn Strangers and subsequent tireless touring across the country has garnered the band a dedicated following and national recognition. Recently, the band’s latest music video for the single “Leave It On The Ground” premiered on Rolling Stone Country and No Depression exclaimed “Forlorn Strangers is anything but that. This five-person team, all of them playing at least two instruments, is one of the best looking, most thoughtful, and exceptionally talented groups I’ve ever come across.” These kinds of accolades are only the beginning for a band who The Chattanooga Pulse calls “the worthy 21st century successors to the likes of Seeger, Guthrie and the Carter Family.” Be on the lookout for tour dates and new material in 2017. ... See MoreSee Less
Chapel Hill quartet Mipso return with new a new album, Coming Down The Mountain — ten songs of love and loss and forward motion, with words that sear and salve in turn, and music that invites you in...