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Saying an artist – hell, anything – is one of a kind is such a cliché that it’s hard to take seriously. But how else to describe guitarist and composer Steve Tibbetts? With his carefully honed blend of wide-ranging musical influences, the Minnesotan has never fit comfortably into a category. He got the term “new age” thrown at him a lot in the eighties, but there are too many dark undercurrents in some of his pieces, not to mention too much active listening required, to call his music aural wallpaper. His work can often be found in the jazz section of a record store, but improvisation is but one element of his aesthetic, and the traditional swing of jazz isn’t something he’s ever seemed particularly interested in. It’s easy to pick out bits of his style – classical fingerings, rock riffery, harmonies and scale configurations grown out of his studies of music from India, Bali and Nepal – and think of his work as a musical stew. But that’s not quite accurate, either, as the blend is so seamless and organic that it never feels like Tibbetts sat back and thought, “and now I’ll add this lick lifted from a Tibetan folk song, or this riff from an old labor union ballad.” All of his musical education and experience becomes filtered through his singular vision to produce music that appeals to a wide variety of listeners, but never sounds like anyone less than himself.
All of which is a way of explaining that Life of, Tibbetts’ first solo album in almost a decade, is hard to describe. As on his previous LP Natural Causes, Tibbetts eschews electric guitar for a solely acoustic excursion, adding piano to his repertoire as well. Cellist Michelle Kinney and longtime Tibbetts sidekick percussionist Marc Anderson accompany him on many tracks, but their contributions are so muted as to be almost subliminal. Most (but not all) of the songs begin with the titular phrase, but aren’t necessarily about any real people, and without lyrics, there’s no direct point of reference in any case. Familiar signposts appear in the form of his signature playing style, from his relaxed fretting and sitar-like string bends to his liquid notes and dead tone. His melodies move at a measured pace, seemingly wandering in search of themselves, but in reality simply in no hurry to get where they’re going, allowing Tibbetts to add fills, strums, arpeggios and filigrees as he sees fit.
“Life of Joan” and “Life of Alice” become elusive and enigmatic, even as his guitar work brings each minimalist tune to life. “Life of Emily” boasts one of the record’s prettiest melodies, but gathers enough clouds about itself to never wallow in its own beauty. “End Again” and “Start Again” – which appear on the record in that order – feel like bookends placed next to each other, with the 2:44 former being the compact summary of the 9:07 latter. Each track inhabits its own world, while at the same time feeling completely of a piece with the rest of the record.
Tibbetts has long been adept at creating his own universe, and Life of unfolds in front of the telescope with an eye toward peering back through the lens, offering an experience unique to every mind that processes its wonders.
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