Ribbons is a folk album made with a beatmaker’s perspective.
Bibio’s Ribbons is a folk album made with a beatmaker’s perspective. Throughout the record, Stephen Wilkinson keeps a curious distance between himself and his material in the same way as a producer using his favorite soul songs as fodder for a rap beat. Though Ribbons speaks the musical language of the British Isles, with finger-picked guitars and Celtic fiddles, it chucks the fundamental building block of folk music—that’d be the song—out the window.
Tracks end abruptly, as if Wilkinson’s trying to tell us to not really think of them as songs. There’s a fuzzy filter over his convincingly wizened voice, letting us know the vocals and lyrics aren’t really the point. The guitars loop almost aggressively, without the fluid motion of someone hammering out the chords to an old folk chestnut in real time. And the margins are filled with electronic burbles that definitely couldn’t be replicated by someone strumming a guitar in a field somewhere. The folk songs anthologized by historians like Francis James Child and Steve Roud were written sometime in the primeval filth of British history and designed to be passed down through the generations. Ribbons is designed to stay on wax.
But it’s unwise to hold Ribbons to the same standards as a Shirley Collins record. It’s an extension of what Wilkinson’s been doing for his whole career: conjuring a rosy, abstract view of rural Britain that, even if you’ve never taken a drive through the island’s countryside, gives you a pretty good idea of what it might be like. Last year’s disciplined ambient project Phantom Brickworks extended a tendril through his home’s impossibly storied past, evoking the mystery contained within vast swaths of time. Ribbons is more diurnal and contained in the present, but it’s in the same vein of Albion ambient.
Ribbons is placid, carefree and positive: a Brit answer to George Winston’s desiccations of American folk music. It’s nearly all major-key, and though the production is lo-fi in that it sounds like it could’ve been ripped from an old 78, it’s never harsh or dissonant except as “Pretty Ribbons and Lovely Flowers”—by no coincidence one of the record’s most explicitly beat-oriented tracks—slowly and almost reluctantly takes shape. Absent are the macabre and violent aspects of British folk music that bely the brutality and poverty of the nation’s past. It’s a tourism brochure for green pastures and cute hamlets, and it ends with the producer sitting peacefully “Under a Lone Ash.”
It’s hard to find better mood music than this, and there are enough tracks with the snap of classic funk and hip-hop (“Before,” “Old Graffiti”) to keep fans who found Bibio through Adult Swim bumpers and beat playlists interested. But as it wears on, it can feel a little vacant. There’s none of the mystery of Phantom Brickworks, nothing that belies how fascinating and frightening the multitudes of Britain’s history really are. Towards the beginning of the album, Wilkinson advises us to heed “the wisdom of the cow” (we hear a sampled “moo”), and that’s not a bad Patronus for the producer: a wide-eyed animal grazing placidly in some idyll, blissfully unaware of its predicament.