Delicate Steve was initially a five-member New Jersey band lead by defacto leader Steve Marion that was brought to light by the pen and contract of A&R man Willis Glasspiegel of Luaka Bop. Shortly after discovering them in a New Jersey parking lot, Glasspiegel signed the band over buckets of General Tso and buzzing conversation about music and literature without even having heard a moment of their music. “They were just sitting around in lawn chairs, dressed like 19th century criminals, saying the most remarkable things,” remembers Glasspiegel, “’We’ll be a different kind of group’ they said. ‘We will introduce people to themselves. We’ll inoculate them from discourse.’”
It was their ability to articulate and communicate an artistic vision, not the stuff of the vision itself, that landed these coy characters in the studio less than twenty four hours later to work on what was to become a radio-friendly concept album about the early life of the mysterious plane hi-jacker D. B. Cooper from the 1970s. As cool an idea that may have been however, that brainchild didn’t survive. Actually, neither did Delicate Steve, at least not as the band they were. Instead, with outskirts-friendly Luaka Bop behind him, their initial concept album plan was nixed in favor of a debut record more experimental and singularly composed. The band’s member hierarchy was shifted, Marion became the Delicate Steve in a much more literal sense, and the other members became what Marion since described in an interview as a “collective cooperative.”
The first musical offspring of all these happenings is Wondervisions, a concise and all too brief under thirty minute instrumental album—with the exception of “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble” and its short melodic choral hooks– that gravitates around Marion’s hyper-conversational electric guitar. The album’s overture “Welcome-Begin” begins sounding like the traveling band’s equivalent to the symphony orchestra’s tune-up: incidental guitar neck string noise sounds over arhythmic sprinkled percussion that takes direction in an ascending overdrive melodic climb then eventually breaks into a chugging and carefree tune. Delicate Steve’s welcoming is a pleasant and irresistible invitation to sit and bask in the feel-good album that follows.
The thing that makes Wondervisions so infectious is its seemingly endless buffet of catchy licks and melodies. Whereas most guitar-oriented pop musics have been ambient (sonically versus rhythmically experimental) in nature over the past century placing priority to soundscape over melody (thank-you, shoegazers), Delicate Steve has opted for a more melodic style of instrumental writing that has no reservations about using easily recognizable, direct-in guitar timbres. Oftentimes, it actually often sounds like Steve just plugged directly into his Marshall for a jam-out and just happened to stick the mic to it and click record.
Through the language of overdrive, chorus, and distortion pedals, most of Wondervisions is written in back to back asymmetrical call and response verses that give a sense of variety and character to Steve’s guitar noodling. In the title track “WONDERVISIONS” for instance, a playful melody alternates between two bass/percussion jabs, using those drum n’ bass blows as both a grounding and departure point for melodic variation: each time the jab interrupts, the melody insistently recoils with a counter-argument. Delicate Steve’s instruments talk.
Other times he alternates time signatures between phrases to suggest animated discussion (“Welcome-Begin”), whereas in more episodic pieces like the three-part “Sugar Splash” he switches from 2/4 to a swaying 6/8 about half way through to suggest larger changes in mood or scene. And although the album remains carefree for the most part, there is plenty of variation within and between songs including three curiously named interludes of ambient electronic nature that highlight incidental noises such as the noise of plugging a patch cable into an amp, phantom buzzing, and other negligible – and all too often considered unmusical–instrument/equipment noises he has framed to make ominous and musical. For the astute musicians and gear heads listening, these interludes are reminders of the technological precursors for the music that we sometimes hear as cordless and organic, particularly when it is twisted in bubbly arrangements as it is on Wondervisions.
This riff-oriented music is elastic. You can work to it, sing with it, dance to it, play air guitar to it, cook with it, sleep to it, and as Steve proves in his retro “Wondervisions” video with Dirty Projectors’s Nat Baldwin, you can also play intense one-on-one basketball to it. In extremely short shorts. True, the music of Wondervisions alone may not inspire the most revelatory visions. But if you invite the inoculating Delicate Steve along for whatever adventures you yourself choose, expect a sprite and adventurous passenger who reminds that even when we are most content to know where we are going, the best part of the ride arises from something we too often dismiss as a disfavor: the impossibility of knowing what we may see along the way.