Bibio: “Ambivalence Avenue”
This is one of the greatest values of indie music: Relatively free from considerations of commerce and convention, indie allows us to consider musical history in a different, often weirder, and occasionally purer light. At its best, it simultaneously expands our understanding of a given style or movement while turning everything we think we know on its head. Take Fleet Foxes: They essentially channel The Band’s rustic Americana into something more free-flowing and less bound by typical song structures, allowing us to consider the sound of the music anew. TV on the Radio re-imagines vintage Prince in a post-Radiohead setting. Arcade Fire captures all of U2‘s bombast, but with a raggedness and a scruffiness that have eluded Bono and Co. since the War days.
There’s great freedom there, in the chance to play with history and tradition, and a man called Bibio knows that. In fact, on his new album Ambivalence Avenue, he does all of the above artists one better, at least as far as genre-bending, indie-fied music theory goes: On his Warp debut, he does nothing less than redefine what “folk” music really means, opening the umbrella further and further to include hip-hop and AM radio funk.
It’s a neat trick that allows Bibio to play into many current indie fads while also demonstrating a deeper sense of musical history than most indie cats are capable of, and also bridging the gap between indie pop and experimental hip-hop. His method is simple: He considers all of this music to be on a level playing field, treating different genres as if they were all cut from the very same cloth. He moves seamlessly from dreamy indie pop to wah-wah funk, from finger-picked 60s-style folk to oddball hip-hop workouts, and the transitions never seem jarring, but, rather, always feel natural, to the point that the whole record flows together like a seamless suite. That’s because Bibio doesn’t flaunt the fact that he’s made one of the year’s most eclectic albums; actually, he downplays it by focusing on what links these styles together, bridging folk and pop with shared harmonic features, showing how instrumental hip-hop can bear the same wistfulness and nostalgia as a minor-key, front-porch ballad.
Pitchfork music critic Brian Howe was moved to invoke J Dilla’s name in discussing Bibio’s work, as a way of highlighting the precision with which Bibio constructs his songs; indeed, the comparison is apt, for even when he’s not working in a straightforward hip-hop idiom here, the artist brings a particularly hip-hop sensibility to the way he constructs his recordings, almost as if they were DJ tracks as opposed to indie folk or pop songs. And that goes back to the way the man plays with the concept of folk music: He knows how to reduce a song to its individual pieces and then build it back up again in odd or exciting new ways, and he knows how to employ familiar signifiers– like the wah-wah pedal in “Jealous of Roses,” which will remind you of any number of vintage R&B and soul cuts– to stake out musical and emotional terrain, just as he’s able to take bits and pieces of various genres and put them together into something that sounds familiar and fresh at the same time, as on the title cut and “Haikuesque.”
That this is Bibio’s Warp debut is fitting, as well: Warp is the label home of one of 2009’s other big indie stars, Grizzly Bear, and Ambivalence Avenue both plays into current indie fascinations as well as one-ups them. The hazy, nostalgic vibe that haunts Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest lends its spectral presence to this album, as well, but where Grizzly Bear’s work is sometimes so atmospheric as to be ephemeral, Bibio anchors his work by balancing his wistfulness with a sense of mischief; there’s no missing the excitement and playfulness in the instrumental hip-hop deconstruction of “Fire Ant.” By the way, there might even be some Animal Collective in here as well, particularly in the more primal moments, and in how Bibio plays it loosey-goosey with genre rules; it’s actually much more eclectic than Animal Collective, too, though not as ambitious or epic in scale.
It’s an album more about sound than song– indeed, it resembles a large tapestry more than it does a collection of individual tracks– but, oddly, Bibio makes that work better than most are able to; he sustains a consistent mood and a continuous sound throughout the record, even as he eases from one style to the next. As a result, the album is both immaculately crafted and surprisingly warm, a very small, compact record that’s bursting with life and ideas; it both embodies and expands our ideas of what folk art is, and as such it’s a wonderfully unique, perhaps even essential listen.