The pleasantries of this new CD by the four-piece band Mipso – Coming Down the Mountain – are the delightful female vocals of fiddler Libby Rodenbough. While the musicians definitely play wonderfully, the personality of the band is the distinctive Rodenbough voice. It’s not folky-country like Emmylou Harris though Libby comes close; it’s not smoky like June Tabor, Christine Collister or Sandy Denny. She is not quirky like Iris Dement or gravelly like the late Karen Dalton. She has a sincere delivery, with good tone and I like how she keeps her high lonesome traditional approach in check.
The lead-off title track from their fourth album “Coming Down the Mountain,” is going to put a smile on the faces of those people who enjoyed the more traditional ancient roots-Americana tunes featured in the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” which featured many classic songs. Mipso, however, displays style and its music are based on the solid ancestry of traditional roots. At the same time, they modernize it for younger ears. With a crystal clear Joseph Terrell acoustic guitar, delicious Eric Heywood pedal steel guitar, a steady Phil Cook beat and percussion the song is instantly memorable. The tune is simply a delightful way to introduce an album.
OK -- so I complimented Ms. Rodenbough. Stepping up to the microphone next is the male lead vocal of acoustic guitarist /songwriter Joseph Terrell. And what does he do? He does the same thing as Libby. He has an absolutely perfect pure Americana voice as displayed in a song that could become a classic as well. Terrell penned “Hurt So Good,” and it’s filled with Ms. Libby’s rousing fiddle, perfect backup vocals and the entire showcase has that Goose Creek Symphony feel throughout. This is a delightful track and should go over big in the South.
The band was wise enough to enclose a beautifully designed lyric book so anyone who starts tapping their toes while listening will have the added benefit of singing along. Yeah…the songs are that good.
Track three also features Libby on fiddle, and Joseph’s acoustic guitar and vocal. The bass (Wood Robinson – great name for a musician) and mandolin of Jacob Sharp have a strong presence on Terrel’s composition “Spin Me Round.” It’s light fare but it has a nice bouncy drive and buttery rhythm. Typical of good music of this kind.
Libby sings lead on her “Cry Like Somebody,” and this one is beautifully rendered with Terrell’s acoustic guitar and male backup vocals. “You cry like somebody with nothing to cry about…”
The material Mipso has written is filled with distinctively clever memorable lines like that. Nothing bothers me more than when people say they never listen to the lyrics in a song. Music is important but if you don’t listen to the lyric it’s like looking at a painting in a museum and only concentrating on the frame. The song is a little spare in instrumentation but the compact feeling and mood are achieved with expertise. Partly because this band knows the lyric is as important as the music and the arrangement. Great musicians have short careers when they don’t take that importance to heart. The Wurlitzer was played by James Wallace. Mipso has the goods.
Joseph turns in another immaculately crafted ballad with poignant backup vocals (with Libby) on “Monterey County” and this one reminds me of the musical versatility of the late Gram Parsons. There’s a hint of Townes Van Zandt in the lyric. This was performed and articulated with lots of charm.
Mandolin player Jacob Sharp performs his original composition “Hallelujah,” and at first I was a little reluctant to embrace this one because so many classic songs have that title. (Leonard Cohen's became classic). But upon listening and allowing the tune to sink into my soul Sharp has written a beautiful, short and intense, credible song. I like his thin breathy vocal approach to the lyric – it fills the song with a sensibility. The melody will sink its teeth into your skin. A very well-written and performed tune. Electric guitar on this track was Josh Oliver. The fact that Sharp kept it relatively simple gives it the necessary weight of importance in its position on the album.
Libby returns with “My Burden with Me,” -- another original -- and Libby is not a showboating vocalist. Her treatment is on par with female singers such as the late Judee Sill (“Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” “The Kiss”) and Joan Baez’s sister the late Mimi Farina who had a golden angelic voice. The banjo is Andrew Marlin. It's obvious this band has written and performed their pieces with loving care.
Picking up the pace is track eight: “Train Down the Line,” with its hypnotic fiddle run and the choo choo train drums of Yan Westerlund. Following close on its heels is another catchy engaging track “Talking in My Sleep,” with a dominant banjo played by Wilson Greene.
Libby sings on the final track with a touch of Natalie Merchant crossed with Aimee Mann. Libby's “Water Runs Red,” is one of the most powerful songs on the album. Shimmering acoustic guitar, the Phil Cook piano and organ, prickly mandolin by Jacob Sharp, a low thunderous bass by Wood Robinson, Yan’s drums fire off crackerjack snaps on the snare and when it all comes together you would think it’s a song performed by Procol Harum. Libby’s fiddle whines and cries with the same energy that Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson provides with his flute. More songs like this and Mipso will corner the market in a new genre. Something like progressive-Americana or Roots-Progressive. What a way to pump life into a once hallowed music form – progressive rock.
Yet, before anyone starts to think the lyric is avant-garde or surreal – it’s not. It is not your standard Americana lyric but it has depth and Libby was careful how she laid it out. “This house is a temple, sanctified and simple, and the chimney leaks in the winter, like a mother’s lost her head…and the water runs red…the water runs red….” Oh, yeah…I’m going to like this band. Libby has style and the band itself interprets with intent and finesse. They are capable of jarring the senses. You will hear yourself say at times, “what did she say…?” And you’ll have to go back to the lyric sheet.
Libby has a Joni Mitchell-Laura Nyro quality about her voice, but not all the time – and I think with this band she will have the room to branch out and explore other diverse musical genres as they did and never stray far from the band’s love of roots music. Mitchell was a folk singer who slowly evolved into a jazz singer of rich style. Nyro started out with spare piano story songs with lots of mood and then she morphed into a metropolitan soul singer who redefined the genre. These are all excellent musicians that she works with – Joseph Terrell (a very good songwriter), Wood Robinson, Jacob Sharp (another songwriter who will develop more from “Hallelujah”). They are a cohesive, creative unit together.
Mipso in a word: there's lots to like in this collection -- you just have to weed through it and find the level of sweetness that satisfies your musical cavities. The collection was produced by Brad Cook and recorded in North Carolina. The CD package is a colorful four-panel foldout by Ruth Lichtman. The package was designed by Mark Berger at Madison House Design. The lyric book photography: Sasha Israel.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / May 2017