What album would work best with a lazy Sunday morning with coffee and the paper? A long drive in the country? While preparing for a hectic commute? Reining in focus in order to study? Winding down after a day of hard work? A solitary 1am glass of wine? Or something to send you off to post-wine dreamland?
And, perhaps, most important to many PSTracks readers – which albums best stand up to an intensive “pure listening” session on a high-end system?
In its own low-key way, Steve Tibbetts’ Natural Causes (ECM 1951, 2010) might be one of the more versatile recordings out there — “out there” being the operative phrase. It’s not an easy album, but it’ll work in all the above situations—and qualify as a recording worthy of showing off an audio system to friends who appreciate innovative, impeccably-performed instrumental acoustic work.
Folks who love, say, Michael Hedges’ less flashy guitar work might appreciate Tibbetts’ idiosyncratic technique, but they may also be put off by the perceived lack of structure in his arrangements. Steve’s main guitar here is a twelve-string but there’s little chance his sound will be confused with the more popular output of Fahey, Kottke or their followers; you’ll find no churning riverboat rave-ups. Toe-tapping repetition and verse/bridge/chorus conventions aren’t necessarily a bad thing; they’re just not Steve’s thing.
Causes takes the uniquely Tibbettsian route of courting the listener via mood and inflection rather than a more linear instrumental narrative. His is a more Eastern approach, both in instrumentation and sensibility. In the mid-90s Tibbetts experienced Indian sarangi master Sultan Khan playing live in Steve’s hometown, St. Paul. When recording Natural Causes, Tibbetts, quoted in ECM’s press materials, says
“I stuck with my dad’s Martin D-12-20 12-string. I wanted to keep things simple. I thought maybe I could find a voice in well-played single-string lines and say more with less – like Sultan Kahn, perhaps. That was the intent, even though the music usually mutated into complex little cathedrals.”
“Since [the Sultan Kahn concert] I have taken the singing, voice-like quality of his sarangi as my example. Over months and years of playing the frets were ground down on my 12-string and it began to sound more and more like the sarangi. The frets are nearly flat now. The guitar is about 45 years old and has a mellow, aged sound to it. I set up that guitar so that the strings are in double courses. I set them in unisons. This makes it possible to find (for me) a more “singing” tonality in single string lines.“
Upon first listen, Tibbetts’ guitar wanders and strays against invisible abutments and disappears, mid-phrase, in sudden fades, but after a couple plays, patterns emerge and the songs cohere. Often an abrupt change in mood has the effect of snapping the listener out of a daydream.
Tibbets has a pleasing handle on disorientation, but he does melancholy well, too, especially on “Marnikarnika,” where a lonely piano progression reminiscent of Harold Budd underpins a pensive guitar figure.
On “Sangchen Rolpa”, Tibbetts envelops a guitar and piano duet with the subtle sound of inhalation and exhalation — an effect that can be either comforting or eerie, depending on your mood.
Percussionist Marc Anderson is a frequent collaborator throughout Steve’s discography, and he and Tibbetts communicate in their usual uncanny manner on Natural Causes. On past releases Anderson’s deft command of the quiet and loud ends of the rhythmic spectrum were apparent; on this album his touch is moderate but no less assured.
When musing over worthy adjectives for Natural Causes, the word “organic” comes to mind– but it also feels like faint praise. There’s definitely something going on in Steve Tibbetts’ recordings, but the real beauty may be that that the most alluring elements aren’t something even tangible, let alone easily described. There’s a mysterious, abstract nature embedded in the songs and a patient listener will be rewarded.
Natural Causes is Steve Tibbets’ seventh recording for ECM – or eighth, if you count the the label’s reissue of YR, Steve’s second album, originally self-released. Natural showcases ECM’s characteristically uncompromising approach to crystalline sound quality while avoiding the icy, standoffish vibe that suffuses some of the label’s venerable output.
Unfortunately, Causes hasn’t been released on LP. The CD sounds impressive enough on a decent system, but the dynamic range of the recording is such that I find myself …well, wanting more. ECM has made a portion of its catalog available in hi-res, however, this recording isn’t one of the chosen. It’s necessary to go on record stating that I’d trade all four HDtracks sides of, say, Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert for Natural Causes in glorious 24/96 (are you listening, Manfred?).
If you’d like to further sample the varied catalog of Mr. Tibbetts, here are some starting points, including his more electric side:
A Man About A Horse (ECM, 2002): “Glass Everywhere”
Big Map Idea (ECM, 1989): “Station”
Safe Journey (ECM, 1984) “Climbing”
Steve Tibbetts’ output – twelve albums since 1977 — is an ongoing exercise in genre-defying music. Is it jazz? Avant-folk instrumental? Progressive rock? Pan-Tibetan art-trance? Post-Windham Hill neo-melancholia? It probably doesn’t matter (especially that last one). Adventurous listeners will likely welcome Steve’s music into their days and nights–pigeonhole-free.