Minnesota-based guitarist Steve Tibbetts has always gone his own way, crafting his albums in the recording studio with deliberate care. Many of those albums have featured his scorching electric-guitar playing, for example Exploded View (ECM, 1986) and the later A Man About a Horse (ECM, 2002). But beginning with his previous album, Natural Causes (ECM, 2010), he has concentrated on acoustic sounds. His main instrument here is a Martin 12-string guitar, but strung with double-course unison strings (in place of the standard octave strings on the lower four strings). In this way it is more like a mandocello than a conventional 12-string guitar. He is accompanied by his longtime partner, percussionist Marc Anderson, and Michelle Kinney playing cello and drones (she previously appeared on Big Map Idea (ECM, 1989)).
Given the way Tibbetts constructs his music in the recording studio, it's a bit disingenuous to describe it as "acoustic." While the instruments are all acoustic, for the most part the recorded result would not be possible with just these three players performing together in a room. Tibbetts' guitar playing frequently references non-Western sources such as Indian sarangi master Sultan Khan (since he is plucking rather than bowing, another relevant comparison would be sarod master Ali Akbar Khan). The piano is also a prominent instrument in the blendTibbetts jokes that the main difference between making Natural Causes and Life Of is that he's "a better pianist now." Be that as it may, he is certainly not a conventional pianist: the piano is used as a kind of gamelan, like the Balinese gong samples he occasionally triggers with his MIDI guitar.
The absence of electric-guitar shredding also means a lack of the manic energy that accompanied it, replaced by a slower moving, more meditative flow. The prominence of piano in the arrangements is announced with the opener "Bloodwork," almost a piano/guitar duet until some cymbals enter near the end. "Life of Emily" features a new color with tabla from Anderson. "Life of Mir" uses processed guitar to accompany the 12-string, another recurring sound (later joined by drones, piano and hand percussionthe arrangements are never busy, but there is plenty of textural variety).
"End Again" has one of the densest textures on the album, a rich combination of 12-string guitar swells, piano, gongs and hand percussion. At over nine minutes the closer "Start Again" is the longest track by far, but it is a gentle conclusion spotlighting 12-string and hand drums, with light chordal piano accompaniment. The entire program is very much of a piece, the tracks flowing into each other in a meditative flow. It's entirely appropriate that most of the them are titled "Life Of..." as they sound like vignettes on a common theme. Given his current output, we can expect to hear from Tibbetts again in eight years. It has always been worth the wait.
Bloodwork; Life of Emily; Life of Someone; Life of Mir; Life of Lowell; Life of Joel; Life of Alice; Life of Dot; Life of Carol; Life of Joan; Life of El; End Again; Start Again.
Steve Tibbetts: guitar, piano; Marc Anderson: percussion, handpan; Michelle Kinney: cello, drones.