Review by Heather Phares
Bibio (aka Stephen Wilkinson) impressed early in 2009 with the lovely Vignetting the Compost, but he raised the bar just a few months later with his second full-length that year, Ambivalence Avenue. This is Bibio's Warp debut, and the label is a fitting home for his music: Vignetting's sweetly decaying sound bore the influence of Warp veterans Boards of Canada. However, Ambivalence Avenue's sound is markedly different than what came before it; its mix of breezy pop and creatively layered instrumental hip-hop sits comfortably between a couple of other Warp residents, Grizzly Bear and Flying Lotus. While Bibio's signature nostalgic haze still floats over these songs, they sound far more active and clearly recorded than his previous work. Even the songs that could have appeared on Vignetting the Compost -- such as the fragile folk of "Abrasion" and the languid pop of "Haikuesque (The Way She Laughs)" -- have a more immediate feel despite their delicacy. These songs are less overtly conceptual than some of Bibio's prior work, but if Vignetting was a spring romp through the English countryside, then Ambivalence Avenue is summer in the city: the title track rolls in on the sound of street traffic before trippy flutes and guitars take over; the lush harmonies of "All the Flowers" are half High Llamas, half Crosby, Stills & Nash; and the jazzy tone to "Lover's Carving"'s guitars and synths has a distinctly urbane feel. Ambivalence Avenue goes from pleasant to exciting when Bibio ventures into unfamiliar territory, like the stuttering layers of "Fire Ant"'s instrumental hip-hop or the eight-bit bleeps and beats on "Dwrcan" and "S'vive." Some songs are almost unrecognizable compared to Bibio's past albums: the excellent "Jealous of Roses" mines '70s soul for its wah-wah guitars, falsetto vocals, and splashy reverb, and "Cry! Baby!" starts as a dense post-rock swirl, then becomes a jazzy synth pop meditation. It would be easy to call this album an exercise in dabbling if the quality of these songs weren't so strong -- and it's that quality, along with Bibio's continuing flair for crafting distinctive atmospheres, that are the only constants throughout. Even if Ambivalence Avenue didn't follow so quickly after an already solid Bibio album, it would still be a big step forward for Wilkinson's music.
Boards of Canada's 2005 album, The Campfire Headphase, included a song called "Chromakey Dreamcoat" that sounded like guitar loops playing on a wobbly phonograph. You have to wonder if this was a shout-out to their li'l homey Bibio, who cut three records for Mush from the whole cloth of this idea. Like his idols, he filled his electro-acoustic music with antiquated cultural products and nature sounds-- things that are beautiful because we've less and less use for them. But he lacked range, his wavering loop-collages falling into two categories: those informed by the sprightly forms of British folk, and those that were nearly formless.
Bibio released Vignetting the Compost just five months ago, and it seemed to cement his status as a pleasant one-trick pony. So it's shocking how utterly and successfully he rewrites his playbook on this Warp debut. I actually have to eat a little crow. I wrote of Compost that Bibio had a "thin, modest voice that verges on anonymity," and suggested that he should favor atmosphere over songcraft. This seemed justified: The more the songs approximated pop structures, the less interesting they became. But on Ambivalence Avenue, Bibio proves that he actually can sing and produce memorable arrangements. He used to make FX blurs with traces of pop and folk; now he inverts that formula with bracing clarity.
The results are fantastic and diverse: The title track weaves bouncing vocals through crisp guitar licks and bouncy flutes; "All the Flowers" is a fey folk gem; the dreamy "Haikuesque (When She Laughs)" is better indie-rock than many indie-rockers are making these days. Summery anthem "Lovers' Carvings" coasts on crunchy, gleaming riffs and upbeat woodblocks, and the autumnal "The Palm of Your Wave" is simply haunting. It's hard to believe that these inspired, moving vocal performances are coming from the same guy who recorded moaning ambiguities like "Mr. & Mrs. Compost". Occasionally, you'll hear a little tremble in the strings and go, "Oh right, this is Bibio," but mostly, detuned atmosphere has been replaced by silky drive.
While these songs are a quantum leap for Bibio, they still reasonably project from the foundation he's laid. But there's no accounting for the remainder of the album, which finds him paddling the uncharted waters of hip-hop, techno, and points outlying. "Jealous of Roses" sets lustrous funk riffs dancing between the stereo channels as Bibio belts out a surprisingly effective Sly-Stone-in-falsetto impersonation. "Fire Ant" spikes the loping soul of J Dilla with the stroboscopic vocal morsels of the Field; "Sugarette" wheezes and fumes like a Flying Lotus contraption. The music feels both spontaneous and precise, winding in complex syncopation around the one-beat, with subtle filter and tempo tweaks, and careful juxtapositions of texture (see the arid, throttled voices scraping against the sopping-wet chimes of "S'vive"). Many songs taper off into ambient passages that have actual gravity, gluing the far-flung genres together. It's the kind of seamless variety, heady but visceral, that few electronic musicians who aren't Four Tet have achieved.
While Ambivalence Avenue is an excellent album by any measure, Bibio deserves extra credit for venturing outside of his established comfort zone. He began his musical career trying to emulate Steve Reich and Boards of Canada on no-fi equipment. He was fascinated by the physicality of media-- of degrading tape and malfunctioning recording gear. And he was interested in the natural world, letting the sounds of streams and rainshowers stand in for his own personality. Having depleted these ideas over the course of three solid albums, he's put them aside to do nearly the opposite. Ambivalence Avenue moves the focus from the flaws of media to their capacity for precision, and takes fewer cues from nature than from the urban sounds-- including Dilla and Madlib-- that Bibio admits discovering in recent years. By jettisoning a limiting aesthetic, he reveals his abilities to be startlingly vast, and one of our most predictable electronic musicians becomes a wild card.
— Brian Howe, June 26, 2009