Stephen Wilkinson, better known as Bibio, already released one beautiful set of laptop folk in 2009, Vignetting the Compost, which was a farewell album of sorts for his former label Mush. It was a bittersweet, twisted exercise in nostalgia, with crackly, woozy guitars bending and twisting like Boards of Canada does with analog synthesizer sounds. In fact, Marcus Eoin of Boards of Canada has been one of Wilkinson’s biggest supporters from the get-go, so it comes as little surprise that as Bibio closes a chapter with Mush, Wilkinson starts a new one with Warp Records, which Boards of Canada has called home for more than a decade. Curiously, however, the similarities between BoC and Bibio have become significantly diminished on Ambivalence Avenue, Wilkinson’s first offering for the now 20-year-old label.
After three albums of electro-filtered indie pop, Stephen Wilkinson takes on a more experimental and playful role on Ambivalence Avenue. His focus is still on making humble, warm and crackly pop songs, and ones filtered through vintage effects to give a twinkle-eyed, nostalgic feel for a time that may not have ever existed. Yet the range of sounds here is much broader and more upbeat. In contrast to the gray and brown cityscape on the cover, it’s a bright and summery album, with big melodies and big ambition, often deceptively presented in unassuming fashion.
While Ambivalence Avenue is a unique album in its blend of styles and influences, parallels can be drawn to many of Bibio’s new labelmates. The melancholy psych-ballad “Haikuesque (When She Laughs)” shares some of Grizzly Bear’s ornate chamber pop sound, while the glitchy hip-hop of “Fire Ant” and “Sugarette” recalls Flying Lotus and Prefuse 73. The latter even incorporates some 8-bit video game bleeps and blips, which comes as something of a jarring, but super fun interruption to Wilkinson’s otherwise heady and hypnotic sonic treats.
As exciting and unexpected as some of the tracks on Ambivalence Avenue, Wilkinson’s strength lies in crafting catchy, laid-back pop melodies through his fuzzy filters. The leadoff title track is an outstanding start to the album, with static and flutes dancing around Wilkinson’s jangly guitar riffs and sweet, choirboy vocals. It has a bit of a Latin rhythm beneath its humble, folky melody, however, which makes it all the more enjoyable, even a little bit dance-friendly. Wilkinson isn’t afraid to tamper with this formula, though, and it results in some joyful standouts like the lo-fi wah-wah funk of “Jealous of Roses,” or “Lovers’ Carvings,” which finds a groovy cowbell beat transforming its soft sounds into a high-energy hoedown. Yet one of the album’s most sublime moments, “Cry! Baby!”, is tucked near the end, an epic post-rock instrumental with most of Wilkinson’s favored fuzz effects replaced with pristine guitar and synth sounds.
Bibio’s Ambivalence Avenue is a gleeful mish-mash of disparate sounds clashing to make for some surprisingly beautiful and accessible music. For that matter, it’s also a great leap forward for Wilkinson, whose cloudy tunes have become just a bit sunnier and erratic in the best way possible. This could very well become your new favorite summer mixtape.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.