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Bibio - Ribbons Music Album Reviews

After drifting into ambient drone on his last album, Stephen Wilkins returns to his chill, bucolic stomping grounds.

For a dude whose music is so unflappably chill, Bibio, the British producer Stephen Wilkinson, remains a restless musician. Over the past 14 years his path has zig-zagged between acoustic and digital extremes; it’s only fitting that his landmark album was called Ambivalence Avenue, since Wilkinson cheerfully refuses to stay in any one lane for long. His signature mixture of acoustic folk, hip-hop beats, and easy-listening soul might seem tailor-made for the era of mood-based playlists and legal marijuana, but there’s genuine weirdness to his warbly patina, wildlife field recordings, and fingerpicked six-string, all of which recalls oxidized cassette tapes curling in the heat. With the ambient drone of 2017’s Phantom Brickworks, he drifted into uncharted waters, but Ribbons returns him to his habitual stomping grounds.

Much like 2016’s A Mineral Love, the new album is a light, often carefree listen, the document of a musician firmly in control of his talents and happy to tweak familiar formulas rather than tear up the rulebook altogether. But Ribbons still carves out a new corner of Bibio’s catalog. Interweaving acoustic nylon- and steel-string guitars, mandolin, violin, harp, and banjo with electric piano, sitar, Mellotron, and clavinet, it is the folkiest album he has recorded yet, largely shifting the balance from contemporary collage techniques to old-timey jigs and reels.

Acoustic instrumentals and featherweight pop dominate; breakbeats and sampled loops cede center stage to fingerstyle melodies whose gently worn surfaces suggest old 78s rescued from a country-house attic. He hasn’t entirely turned his back on the 21st century; after the classical guitar opener “Beret Girl,” he quickly cycles through a folk-soul fusion ballad (“The Art of Living”) and a laid-back groover in the style of Silver Wilkinson’s “À tout à l’heure” (“Before”). But the excellent “Old Graffiti,” a sleek romp with the Doobie Brothers written all over it, is the only song here to emphasize the funk instincts so central to 2011’s Mind Bokeh; the majority of Ribbons is less yacht rock than Ren faire.

There are many who have called Bibio’s music pastoral, and Wilkinson earns the description here. He sings of sunbeams and feathers, summer seeds and autumn leaves; in “The Art of Living,” he offers, with no apparent irony, “To view the grass up close/Feels deeper than the most/Well-read story.” But he’s got a sense of humor, too: He packages such Whole Earth Catalog chestnuts with pleas to consider “the wisdom of the cow,” complete with a faint, sampled moo. His playing and his production still frequently outstrip his skills as a lyricist, but occasionally he turns up with a verse of surprising depth: “Write me a note/And fold it in quarters/There’s so little time/We’re safe in the garden,” he sings on the melancholy “Quarters,” an affecting song about forgiveness and acceptance.

Bibio has sometimes run the risk of sounding too safe, simply by virtue of the overwhelming prettiness of his music. While his pitch may wobble and his atmospheres grow cobwebbed, there’s little in his catalog that’s noisy or jarring or confrontational—at least, aside from a one-time stab at power pop that, wisely, he hasn’t attempted again. But on Ribbons, he turns familiarity into a virtue: In channeling sounds of the distant past, he brings something new to his customary swirl of birdsong, babbling brooks, Fairport Convention 8-tracks, and other rural accoutrements. The results are as reassuring as the memory of your favorite counselor picking up a weather-beaten acoustic guitar by the light of the campfire.

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