Delicate Steve | Wondervisions
Most Likely To: rise, like a hydro-electric Mothra, from the ashes of an African village burned to the ground by post-rock minotaurs. Or at least say so in their press release.
Delicate Steve entered my radar last October when they played a show in a little outdoor amphitheater at Middlebury College, triple-billed with Beach Fossils and an unfortunate opening band that will remain unnamed. After that first band finished their shambling mess of a set, Steve Marion and his four bandmates, like a special envoy sent to remind us what a tight live act sounds like, exploded into fifth gear with their clamoring percussion and Marion’s soon-to-be-trademark sugar-rush guitar lines. Many of us were a little surprised when the songs ended up including no vocals, but this didn’t change the fact that most of the crowd was on their feet, dancing in front of the stage, within minutes.
On set closer “Butterfly,” band members yelled at us to pick up various auxiliary percussion instruments lying around the stage, and we were transformed into one big grinning, dancing, rhythm-making machine. It was a tough act for Beach Fossils to follow.
So expectations were high around here for Delicate Steve’s first full-length record, just released on David Byrne’s world-oriented Luaka Bop label. As it happens, Wondervisions shows a band that is fully-formed in their sonic style, but they waste too much of the record’s precious 30 minutes on interludes, mood-setters and palate cleansers for it to really satisfy.
Still, it’s an album bursting with ideas, not to mention an exuberant, joyful mood. And since most of its seven tracks that cross the two-minute mark had already been released in one medium or another, we might be best served to think of Wondervisions as a convenient collection of material rather than a full-fledged artistic statement of purpose. Plus, it’s possible that notices from high-profile outlets like Spin and that increasingly powerful arbiter of indie crossover success, NPR, created a pressure on the band to release a tangible collection of songs sooner than they would have otherwise.
Don’t be deceived by go-nowhere Stevie Wonder references (Delicate Steve, Stevie Wonder, Wondervisions, Innervisions…); Delicate Steve are mining a very specific bit of sonic territory most unlike Little Stevie’s. At the center of it all, there’s Marion’s melodic and insanely catchy guitar lines, reminiscent of Dirty Projector’s main brain Dave Longstreth in their slightly tropical flavor and experimentation with rickety, mathy time signature changes. Just take Longstreth’s already tightly-wound playing, ratchet it up an octave or two, and add some overdrive crunch, and you have a decent approximation of Marion’s style. On most songs, he’s accompanied by bright analog synths, ebullient bass and the tom-tom/snare/rim style of percussion propagated by Animal Collective and, more recently, seized upon with gusto by Local Natives.
Highlights “Butterfly,” “Wondervisions” and “Flyin’ High” capitalize on this combination quite well, but some of the other songs raise questions about whether the type of music Delicate Steve is making can sustain itself without vocals. The self-titled debut by Providence five-piece Fang Island, released last spring, is a similar album: exuberant, concise and experimental but playful, and it gets by on very few lyrics. But here, Marion often follows a musical idea to the end of the road, and then makes an abrupt change of direction (“Sugar Splash”), or stretches that idea out into a full-length song. “Don’t Get Stuck (Proud Elephants)” more or less gets by on its building progression, but “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble”—as cute, catchy, and likable as it is—seems to be practically begging for a vocal melody. It’s an entirely listenable song, but it’s a little too simple to last even 2:45.
With such a fresh, original sound and stellar live performance, there’s no doubt that Delicate Steve will continue their meteoric rise. In the meantime, I hope that Marion’s songwriting finds a new sense of focus, so that he can start to make the sort of music for which Wondervisions strives but often falls short.
Watch the video for “Butterfly” from Delicate Steve: