|On each successive album of electro-acoustic collages, Stephen Wilkinson (aka Bibio) has taken a hesitant step toward traditional songcraft. His debut, Fi, was full of fragments and wisps; it displayed his signature blend of quaint English folk and Boards of Canada-style electronics at its most elemental and transient. Hand Cranked featured the first appearance of his timorous voice and more consistent track lengths; music that seemed about folk moved a notch closer to being folk. And Vignetting the Compost features more singing, more orderly structure, and more unvarnished melody than ever before. On some of these songs, Bibio would only have to break up the rigidity of his loops and lose a few sound effects to actually turn into Bert Jansch.|
But this is just evidence of a gradual slide to the right on the electro-acoustic spectrum. The constants of Bibio's music remain intact. There is his characteristic naturalism: Birdsong and a stream serve an overture for "Weekend Wildfire"; birds nest in the staticky thickets that close out "Thatched". There is his twanging acoustic guitar, which is the fundamental element of many of his sun-streaked idylls-- sometimes, now, appearing almost unadorned, as on "Mr. & Mrs. Compost". And there is the frequent sense of hearing everything through a wobbly old phonograph. This effect is particularly pronounced now that Bibio's guitar parts have grown so robust, giving it more surface to cling to. It's a technique he uses to various ends-- it renders "Flesh Rots, Pip Sown" warm and nostalgic, like aged film; elsewhere, as on "Torn Under the Window Light", it sounds ethereal, even sinister.
It's no stretch to say that Vignetting the Compost features some of Bibio's finest music to date; the vocals, however, are more of a mixed bag. Wilkinson has a thin, modest voice that verges on anonymity. This can actually be a plus when he uses it as a sound element among others, as it slips unassumingly into the compositions while evoking the workmanlike singing of non-commoditized folk music. It works well as a reverb-drenched postscript to "Flesh Rots", but it's less interesting as a focal point on "Mr. & Mrs. Compost" and "Great are the Piths". All of this risks overstating the case: The vocals don't show up that frequently, and are seldom worse than distracting when they do. Bibio spends the bulk of the album fiddling with gleaming, ghosting sounds that evade such easy characterization.
It's just a slightly unsettling tendency-- you get the impression that maybe Wilkinson secretly pines to be an unreconstructed folkie, and has been using electronics as sort of smoke screen that he's clearing away as he gains confidence. The problem here is that while he's a quite interesting electro-folk musician, there is evidence that he's merely capable as a straight-up folk singer. One worries that this is a distraction from what he does well, like hanging reversed trills on the tranquil arpeggios of "Dopplerton" or making guitar strings chirp like birds on "Everglad Everglade"-- this is where his unique musical personality shines through. If he does wind up going all Fairport Convention on us, it'll be like Joaquin Phoenix deciding to be a rapper-- more power to him, but what a waste! - Pitchfork