Minneapolis guitarist Steve Tibbetts is in like a lamb and out like a lion, in the most subtle of ways.
There is a good five seconds of silence on the first track of Natural Causes, Steve Tibbetts' latest offering from ECM, before any music happens. Marc Anderson's soft-spoken percussion gently nudges Tibbetts' guitar into the picture, making the music sound like it was accidentally stumbled upon by the listener. When the composition "Sitavana" establishes a steady pulse, it remains lighter than air, reacting to its surroundings as if being gently batted about by the wind. In about ninety seconds, it's over.
This can be Steve Tibbetts in a nutshell: someone who has spent a great deal of time approaching music from a different angle while never really drawing attention to himself. Before graduating from college, he unassumingly found himself at the forefront of electronics and the art of guitar manipulation through recording. Before, during, and after receiving his diploma, Tibbetts was discreetly laying down an entire album's worth of potentially revolutionary material. More than thirty years later, his first two releases remain quietly challenging and sometimes misunderstood instrumental guitar cornerstones that likely helped to focus a spotlight on the likes of Michael Hedges, Will Ackerman, and other six-string pioneers sick of playing Chet Atkins standards.
But for all of the things the man has done for the instrument's recent history, subtlety in the music remains key. Perusing a collection of old, negative reviews posted to his official website shows that Steve Tibbetts has withstood accusations that he turns every potential listener into a narcoleptic. This is not a very fair call since the substance of his music lives in a subatomic place where nuances can collide unnoticed. It's a bit like blaming a Galapagos tortoise for moving too slow. If they moved faster, would they have any grace at all?
Still, you can't be blamed for perceiving Natural Causes as a "grower" in the truest sense. This is music that might not fully reveal itself by the fourth listen, and for some that's simply too much effort. Listeners need to reconcile the meditative nature of the music with the compositional complexity stirring beneath it all. The arsenal of instruments used by just two men seems to fly in the face of having such a sparse-sounding album. Steve Tibbetts also doesn't have a very linear sense of melody, making his compositions difficult to grasp at the bare-bones level. It can feel as if everything is trying to go everywhere at once with only subtle percussion to anchor it.
When Natural Causes arrives to the listener, two strong qualities that become apparent are Tibbetts' musicianship and his vision to hold everything in place. In the hands of others, overdubs involving piano, kalimba, and bouzouki can trample all over a good guitar line, cluttering any sense of precision. This isn't the case with Steve Tibbetts. Even with all of these strings, even with all the bells and whistles Marc Anderson provides to help propel the pieces along, there isn't the slightest hint that they are about to trip over one another. The sound has the ebb and flow of a creek, sometimes picking up steam, sometimes taking it back a notch, never falling out of phase. "Padre-Yaga" is a paramount example of this since each movement seems to flow so easily in and out of the other. Even where this is a lot going on, it never sounds like it.
Tibbetts is foremost a sound architect who uses the studio to his advantage, and his writing chops have the potential to get lost in such a dense mix. But like most recordings from ECM, stay with it and you will find it. "Attasha" and "Chandogra" each rely on pivotal minor chords for its main form while leaning on Tibbetts' talent for rapid finger work to do the coloring. He adds shading in a similar way to "Gulezian", a song based on an even simpler formula. It’s proof that sometimes all you need is two good chords.
In a background sense, Natural Causes is easy listening. Take a swim below the surface and you'll find it is not. Excavating the tangible aspects of music that we are accustomed to from an album such as this is heavy lifting indeed. I myself, after many listens, still find the jury to be out on a number of these pieces. But struggles like this can give us worthwhile discoveries. With Natural Causes, I discovered music that was almost too delicate for the human ear. That alone could be something of a marvel.