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Ribbons Review

by Heather Phares

On 2017's excellent Phantom Brickworks, Bibio's Stephen Wilkinson took a deep dive into his music's ambient side that was unexpected, yet made perfect sense within his body of work. This time, Wilkinson spotlights the acoustic elements that have added warmth to his sound since the beginning, and the freshness of Ribbons suggest that his break from song-based music reinvigorated him. In interviews, Wilkinson has mentioned he prefers the simplicity of writing on acoustic guitar, and that purity shines through on the album's numerous instrumentals. With its chirping birds and delicate fingerpicking, "Beret Girl" provides a fade-in to Ribbons' pastoral world that recalls early efforts like Vignetting the Compost, but its eloquent clarity reflects Wilkinson's increasing sophistication as an artist. Ribbons also showcases his finesse with strings of all sorts, whether it's the stately string section reminiscent of Nick Drake on "Under a Lone Ash," the fiddle filigrees on "Watch the Flies," or the gorgeously tender interplay on "Patchouli May." While this is some of Bibio's most unabashedly pretty music, Wilkinson adds some shadows to his sunny melodies. "The Art of Living" is so bucolic that a cow moos on its chorus, but its nostalgia encompasses the pain, as well as the sweetness, that comes from yearning for a time long passed. Similarly, gleaming harmonies and guitars almost disguise the heartache underlying "Curls" and "Quarters." As Ribbons unfolds, Wilkinson bridges his electronic and acoustic sides without resorting to folktronica clich├ęs. The album's dreamy, circular songs are just as winning when he evokes a traditional melody or when he loops samples to hypnotic effect -- or does both at once, as on "Erdaydidder Erdiddar." Built on a rhythm fashioned from footsteps and knocks and topped with insistent fingerpicking and irresistibly swirling flutes, it's a fascinating Pied Piper of a song and a brilliant combination of Ribbons' acoustic sounds and Phantom Brickworks' atmospheres. On the album's second half, Wilkinson throws listeners even bigger curves. He follows the standout "Pretty Ribbons and Lovely Flowers," which combines pitch-shifted samples of an old recording of a friend's grandmother with stark beats and synths, with the sexy Latin soul shuffle of "Old Graffiti" and "Frankincense and Coal," a snippet that could have come from an especially psychedelic children's show from the '70s. Dazzling shifts like these recall Ambivalence Avenue, the last time it felt like anything could happen on a Bibio album. Instead of distracting, Ribbons' tangents add to its masterful feel -- at this point in Wilkinson's career, his music is so rich that he can bring any aspect of it to the fore in ways that feel equally natural and surprising.

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