Review: Bibio – “Fi”

Call it an inviting contradiction. In the early- to mid-1990s, a handful of singer/songwriters began experimenting to much-deserved acclaim with the emotional immediacy and unobstructed listener-to-performer contact of low-fidelity recordings while others took a decidedly higher-fi approach and wrapped their arms around academic composers and artistic-minded movements of generations past. Both expanded the breadth and scope of what, in the wake of post-80’s D.I.Y. trends, had become known as “indie rock.”
Within a few years time, we had minimalist composer Tony Conrad recording drones and John Fahey standards with David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, and Bill Callahan and Lou Barlow crooning, sometimes alongside fuzzy, poorly recorded guitars or tape hiss or rusty loops, into half-busted four-tracks. Well, 10 years and change down the road comes Bibio (a.k.a. self-taught English musician Stephen Wilkinson) and a recording that seems endlessly willing and able to bridge the gap between the two schools of thought.

The appropriately titled Fi, Bibio’s 17-track Mush Records offering, seems to be all about working the magnetic fields between the two fields. The record depends heavily on naturalistic field recordings of Wilkinson’s often-dreamy and often-acoustic instrumentals and, in the course of a dozen or so songs, we hear background noises and found sounds playing almost as prominent a role as the careful constructions of the foreground.

The record also succeeds best as a collection of seemingly unprepared moments — the way a guitar bridge wanes to allow for the introduction of a particular cluster of external noises, the weight a well-placed buzz or exhale or tape whir is lent in a passing refrain, the way an instrumental verse unfolds over what sounds like it could be a background drop of passing train commuters.

And then there’s the songs themselves, which are far from the off-handed, tentative or undeveloped fare one might expect from a disc whose methods of capturing sound can border on being so decidedly lo-fi. Wilkinson keeps each fairly short (12 of the 17 don’t break four minutes and only two break five), but each track’s length doesn’t seem to have much correlation to its impact or worth. The listener’s treated to dreamy Fahey-inspired finger-picking set to pulsing drones (the beautiful “Bewley in White”), several acoustic odes (“Bewley in Grey,” “At the Chase”), spacey balladry (the borderline-melancholic “London Planes,” the crackly “Puddled in the Morning”), and more experimental interludes (the distortions of “Cantaloup Carousel,” the transmission radar-waves of “I’m Rewinding It”).

The majestic “Looking Through the Facets of a Plastic Jewel” — complete with an introductory bridge where overlapping delayed guitars sound, if only briefly, like a symphony of chirping crickets — is devastatingly emotional and wouldn’t be out of place on Gastr del Sol’s Upgrade & Afterlife. The bassy groove of “It Was Willow” calls to mind early Tortoise and even Ui. The ethereal “Poplar Avenue,” which closes the disc after only 48 minutes, owes its greatest debts perhaps to Loren Mazzacane Connors. This is hardly the work of some lo-fi musician with nothing but a detuned pawn-shop guitar and a Dictaphone.

Wilkinson keeps the bar raised high throughout the disc, crafting each moment to complement the ones before and after it. There are tracks that are breathers and ones likely meant to serve as segues from one train of thought to the next. But, all in all, the disc is an enveloping one, deceptive in how it uses lo-fi foundations and field recordings to deliver a highly developed musical message and a shining example of what Bibio dubs “saturated folk.”

Call it what you will — lo-fi sentimentality, hi-fi structure, or an inviting combination of the two. Wilkinson may have the right idea. Bottom line is it’s all about Fi. – Delusions of Adequacy, March 2, 2005

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