Bibio Hand Cranked

[Mush; 2006]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: ambient folktronica
Others: Shugo Tokumaru, The Books, Colleen, Boards of Canada

As Tamec pointed out regarding Bibio's debut, fi, Stephen Wilkinson wasn't doing anything particularly special with his music; so it was fortunate that he did it well. The follow-up, then, has either to be better or be different, and with Hand Cranked, he's aiming for the latter. Maybe he suspected that merely improving upon the established vocabulary of fi would have further exposed him to accusations of peddling shallow tape hiss gimmickry.

To that end, the songs on Hand Cranked more closely resemble just that: songs. Melody plays a more prominent role here, however slightly. His guitar is way up in the mix, no longer curled up and dozing in the grass. Nowhere is this newly aggressive approach more apparent than on early tracks "Cherry Go Round" — little more than an amplification of what fi had acquainted us with — and "Quantock," the song that everybody should hear before they fully give up on Bibio; haunting, wide-eyed, dramatic, and (believe it or not) intense, this track stuck with me for days.

A more varied palette is the goal, and Wilkinson achieves it, for better or worse. Expanding on his previous work's monochrome shades of sun-dappled tranquility, Hand Cranked gives us (among other things) the forlorn "Woodington," whose overwhelming first three minutes could make your heart ache for thirty if given the time; "Dyfi," a bizarre and clumsy flirtation with shuffling, mellow tropicalia; and "Aberriw," with — get this — vocals describing — what else — elements of nature. Meditative electronic passages have all but disappeared, leaving room for more prominent presences of piano, bowed strings, multiple guitars, and unidentifiable wind instruments. These are all bold moves, relatively speaking, and expectedly reveal as many blemishes as they do inspired moments.

Hand Cranked is an apt title, as Bibio's music has always been strangely mechanical, as though churned from an organ grinder. The tool of repetition (or, more euphemistically, persistence) works both for him and against him. The drones of fi allowed him to get away with it, under the guise of a perfectly respectable ambient (or, more cynically, background-music) album. Now, requesting our attention like this, it won't cut it much longer, and shortcuts like vocals aren't the solution. To say that Bibio is skating on thin ice would be to imply that we have something invested in Wilkinson, and, frankly, I don't think we do. But this is good stuff.

1. The Cranking House
2. Cherry Go Round
3. Quantock
4. Black Country Blue
5. Marram
6. Aberriw
7. Zoopraxiphone
8. Dyfi
9. Ffwrnais
10. Woodington
11. Above the Rooftops
12. Snowbow
13. Maroon Lagoon
14. Overgrown