Bibio: Ambivalence Avenue

Bibio reinvents himself as a number of different people -- Neil Young, J Dilla, Ariel Pink, bands named after animals -- but retains a thematic proximity to the idea of the persistence of memory.


Ambivalence Avenue

US Release: 2009-06-23
UK Release: 2009-06-22
Label: Warp

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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.