[9 July 2009]
Bibio shares the distinguished honor of being Boards of Canada’s favorite outfit. Boards of Canada also happens to be the favorite band of Bibio’s Stephen Wilkinson. There’s something detrimental within that exchange that nearly reeks of the narcissism inherent in Rivers Cuomo’s hiring of Ozma as an opening band because they sound just like Weezer. After all, there’s quite a bit that’s like Boards of Canada in all of the Bibio to date, particularly since the Scottish duo essentially flipped the tricks on Wilkinson’s Fi and one-upped them for BOC’s own The Campfire Headphase. As BOC learned and pilfered from Bibio, so to did Bibio from his icons, sometime magnificently.
This is not to say that Bibio hasn’t carved his own identity in the popscape with his obscured-by-time focal lens sheets of warbled-synth tape decay and its gauzy ethereal naturalism of recurrent cavernous acoustic strumming. If anything, they’ve become perhaps so distinctive that you could nearly set your watch to them, which is why Ambivalence Avenue’s attempts to branch out are only too welcome, even as the album regresses into a familiar idyllic indie-rockism more than it surprises with the shock of the new.
Being the third Bibio album of the year, and Wilkinson’s first for Warp, Ambivalence Avenue follows an EP and an LP that, together, coalesced into a culmination of the Bibio sound. The boardwalk stardust of the Oval and Emeralds EP epitomized the nostalgic modus operandi of the project, while Vignetting the Compost (whose title hints at renewal amidst decay) complimented and built upon the complex textures and simple riffage of 2004’s Fi and 2006’s Hand-Cranked, translating the endless loops of those albums into actual structure.
Well, forget about structure, because Ambivalence Avenue contains straight up songs, the kind that resin-fingernailed indie kids go apeshit for. You know, the kind with three part harmonics and jaggedly razored hip-hop vocal samples and chiptune sound effects. On this avenue, all those sounds converge, though not necessarily in the course of the same song. Instead, they’re side-by-side characters who come to life like figures filling in the empty uniforms at the local Salvation Army.
Bibio holds on to the nostalgia for Ambivalence Avenue, but spreads it broader than production aesthetics and home-cooked folk. Ambivalence Avenue’s lyrics are wildly evocative and unfashionably romantic, showcasing what he’s taken away from a life of reading Whitman, as noted in his interview with PopMatters earlier this year. He meters adoration into 3-7-5 modas on the appropriately named “Haikuesque (When She Laughs)” and scorns those who don’t believe in love except as a “symptom of conformity” on “Jealous of Roses”.
The latter song follows the hazy neopsychedelia of the title track opener with some atypical garage-cassette-funk, which is filthy, ramshackle, and schooled in the Haunted Graffiti stylings of Ariel Pink. It’s a great moment of surprise, but it’s also one of the rare moments that harks back to Bibio’s obsession with sound wear and its relationship to the fragile course of memory. It’s a shame, because Wilkinson gives voice to many of these themes for the first time now that he’s thrown his own singing, which is quite good, into the mix. “Lovers’ Carvings” reflects on how physicality embeds memory into artifacts and leaves an eternal psychic imprint. Of writings etched into walls, he incants that “the end never was” and “the words have gone/ But the meaning will never / Disappear from the wall”. On “Abrasion”, he finds a talismanic quality in the corrosive knicks of human interaction with the material world, as if we were already an ancient culture for archaeologists to analyze. He identifies “the fumble marks around a key hole and/ the wedding ring scratches on a rail” with a forensic sentimentality rarely heard in the music of our go-go gadget culture.
Even an album ago, the prospect of a collection of Bibio tunes without Wilkinson’s patented production aesthetic would sound not only useless, but kind of terrible. Far from hip, Wilkinson’s saccharine plucking was often little more than comfort food dressed in complex texture, like hotel art remixed as conceptual avant-garde. Indeed, there are moments on Ambivalence Avenue, like the extended intro to “Lovers’ Carvings”, that tightrope between sunny-side psych-folk noodling and unadulterated Muzak.
As predicted, many have already offered back-handed praise to Ambivalence Avenue for its introductions of verses and choruses, making sure to comment on the negligence of Bibio’s previous experiments in light of this new “serious” project. But I would reject this kind of logocentric realigning of values. There’s no need to invalidate music that emphasizes textured field recordings and warm atmospherics over psych-pop structure just because the acoustic guitar is the predominant value of both fields. Truth be told, there’s benefits and disadvantages to both Bibio styles and the album puts it best when it outlines Wilkinson’s relationship to the music as ambivalent.
Even as enjoyable as the campfire clap-along of “Ambivalence Avenue” and the melancholy Neil Young-isms of “The Palm of your Wave” are, it’s a bit of a disappointment to hear tracks that sound so much like so many other things that are out there by a band that truly had a unique voice, even if that sound involved an exchange with Boards of Canada. There have to be thousands of bands out there doing folk-pop, and maybe only a handful who could feasibly compete with the aesthetic of Boards of Canada, as the two closing tracks of Ambivalence Avenue assuredly do.
That’s why it feels appropriate when the album throws in the occasional left turn, like the aforementioned “Jealous of Roses” or the Dilla/ Prefuse73-inspired instrumental hip-hop of “Fire Ant” and “S’Vive”. It’d take some mad science to mix all of Bibio’s elements, old and new, into a sound as definitive as the one he established over his first five years as an artist, but Ambivalence Avenue is a great fresh start. After three albums focusing primarily on the parochial and internal, Wilkinson is looking out. And the horizon, though distant and somewhat obscured by the residue of the past, and ambivalent as to whether it’s evidential of a sunrise or sunset, shows great promise for the perpetual present.