On a beautiful day in May, band mates Wood Robinson, Jacob Sharp, and Joseph Terrell tossed their mortarboards up into the Carolina blue sky and rejoiced in the finality of their collegiate journeys. With degrees in hand, this Chapel Hill-based trio known as Mipso, threw all thoughts of conventional careers out the window and collectively vowed to make the band their top priority. It was time to put the music first and bring the sound of Mipso to the people of North Carolina and beyond. Their first stop—the recording studio.
On the band’s second LP, “Dark Holler Pop,” Robinson (double bass), Sharp (mandolin) and Terrell (guitar), adopted a more collaborative approach to songwriting. With producer Andrew Marlin, of Mandolin Orange fame, behind the soundboard, the band was able to sit back, learn, and let the songs evolve organically in the studio. The album’s folk-bluegrass sound was further rounded out by industry greats like Marlin, Emily Frantz, Phil Cook, Chandler Holt, John Teer, Bobby Britt, and Chris Roszell.
Released last month, the 11-track album debuted at #8 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums chart. Collectively, “Dark Holler Pop” is North Carolina through and through, featuring Mipso’s blended interpretation of Appalachian music with strong three-part harmonies and traditional instrumentation. While banjo rolls and a punchy mandolin lend the album a fuller bluegrass sound, the sweet whine of the fiddle really shines as it meanders seamlessly from track to track.
The album opens with “A Couple Acres Greener,” a rousing steam-engine paced tune filled with tales of right and wrong turns on life’s path. Terrell sings of jumping the church pews and celebrating his sins, all while wondering how he will leave the world behind when he’s gone. The fiddle intro and harmonies on “Tried Too Hard” lift the self-doubting lyrics, “Maybe I tried too hard/Maybe I was born to fail/Maybe all I’ve done is pave the path to hell.”
“Louise” stands out as one of the best tracks on the album. Lyrics tell a love story through car metaphors, an authentic approach by this group of young men. What better way to describe the bumpy road of love than by comparing it to an old beat up car? Another gem is “When I’m Gone,” a beautiful hymnal ballad laced with delicate guitar picking and a church-worthy chorus.
Mipso slows things down with “Rocking Chair Blues,” evoking images of an old man pondering his life on the front porch of a creek-side cabin. Songs like this reveal the old soul that is at the epicenter of Mipso. These musicians have somehow gained the perspective of a seasoned sage somewhere along the paths of their relatively short lives. Thus, it is not surprising that themes of mortality and decades of hardship find their way onto many of the album’s tracks.
Throughout “Dark Holler Pop” musical influences emerge, without feeling forged. On “Red Eye to Raleigh” hints of Paul Simon’s reveal themselves as Terrell sings of love lost, while “Border Tonight” feels almost like a trip down to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville in Key West. The album’s first single, “Carolina Calling,” feels like an updated, upbeat version of James Taylor’s “Carolina on my Mind.”
The album closes with “Do You Want Me,” which is the first to feature a flirty piano arrangement. Supported by their trademark tight harmonies, Mipso sings of love’s most brutal insecurities, as the song transitions from a polished studio sound to what sounds like a raw live recording.
Overall, “Dark Holler Pop” further solidifies Mipso’s place in modern folk and bluegrass genres. Their decision to work with Marlin and elevate their songwriting makes this album a big success and one that will certainly get ample radio play. With lyrics heavily weighted towards the trials of love and life, it will be interesting to see how touring and life on the road will shape Mipso’s songwriting for their next installment. Until then, “Dark Holler Pop” will keep on spinning.