Friday, July 17, 2009
Ambivalence Avenue - Bibio
SCQ Rating: 87%
When I purchased Vignetting the Compost a few months back, I did so solely to satisfy my ever-aching Boards of Canada addition. I make no excuses about it! And as pleasantly enjoyable as most of it was, Bibio’s third effort offered no practical bid for longevity on my stereo or vacancy in my music-muddled head. Like the first spring days that bring sunshine but remain chilly, this was a fragile album perfect for soundtracking boredom… and I don’t get bored. Little did I know that Bibio had yet another new album in the bag – this one courtesy of Warp records – which would save Vignetting… from my personal CD compost and reinstate it with new purpose: contrast. Ambivalence Avenue, Bibio’s second album of 2009, is everything Vignetting the Compost isn’t; it grows unique melodies then morphs them, branches out but never blindly, digs deep and comes up with more than plain soil.
Forgive all the gardenesque metaphors, I’m still shaking them from my boots as I step onto Ambivalence Avenue; a record positively brimming with the best material Stephen Wilkinson has written under the Bibio moniker. Ushered in by a familiarly docile guitar pattern, the title track is no departure, yet it’s immeasurably fortified by a steady beat and bolder use of vocals. Sequencing this track first seems like a caring way of pacifying fans who sought to pigeonhole Wilkinson, as once the funky, beatific ‘Jealous of Roses’ struts through their stereo, all bets on listener loyalty are off. Surprises are ceaseless from this point: the hiphop-based sample-athon of ‘Fire Ant’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a SoundBombing mixtape, ‘Cry! Baby!’ is a twisting fusion of triphop beats and spiraling guitar. This is an ambitiously eclectic mix that’ll no doubt detract fans who preferred his dreamy meandering, yet for every fan lost on Ambivalence Avenue’s account, I’m positive Bibio has gained another ten listeners by its same graces.
If there’s a similar thread linking this collection to Bibio’s past work, it’s the equal allotment of Wilkinson’s two loves: English folk and electronica. ‘Lover’s Carvings’ is a summery reverie spent half in the grass, half running through lighthearted chord-jumps, even as ‘The Palm of Your Wave’ captures a dormant urgency in his strong vocals and pale acoustics. His folk compositions here would each act as a centerpiece on any of his previous albums, yet what makes Ambivalence Avenue the shock to his discography are his electronic tracks. ‘Sugarette’ is a gorgeous loop of twilight-looming keys punctuated by sampled voices and a crunching beat, which Bibio then magnifies by indulging in his own 8-bit cut-ups (!!). This previously unexplored dark side pops up again on ‘Dwrcan’, an everyday hiphop track that becomes submerged in Bibio’s better judgements; guitars sink their teeth in, menacing beats push its decaying tones up for air, and an ethereal choir – part voice, part machine – fades to black. Hearing Bibio give it a shot is surprise enough, the fact that his talents are so evolved is what’s unnerving. After all those years of aping his Scottish idols, ‘Dwrcan’ actually sounds like an exciting, leftfield Boards of Canada track.
Wilkinson’s duality between folk and electronica was both commended and critiqued in my review of Vignetting the Compost, as I longed for him to quit isolating them and risk the experiment of melding these styles into a cohesive whole. Bibio has accepted the challenge with ‘Haikuesque (When She Laughs)’, matching solemn folk with tight beats while ‘S’vive’ combines, well, everything into a well-rounded collage. How long had Bibio been crafting this lean beast of an album and where along the way did Warp get involved? Was Vignetting the Compost just an obligatory swansong from his home at Mush Records before he fled for greener pastures? However Ambivalence Avenue came together, it’s a courageous step in several directions, and singlehandedly makes a bid for the quickest artistic turnaround in recent memory.