Delicate Steve, Total Slacker, Celestial Shore, Jason Bartell (of Fang Island)
Brooklyn, NY, 11211-4119
This event is all ages
By Michael Azerrad
The first time I heard any of this music, Steve was giving me a lift home after a Nat Baldwin show. We were going up Allen Street in Manhattan, and I'd finally convinced him to play me something from the new album. "This is going to be the last song," he said, and put on "Luna." OK, maybe I'd had a couple of beers, but in the dark of night the lights of passing cars and neon signs glowed molten and forlorn just like Steve's guitar, and there was a serene space in the music as if it were the eye of a storm. It was one of those times when surroundings, moment and music combine to make a powerful impression. I'll always remember it.
And that's a big part of Delicate Steve – the mystical synergy that music can have with life. It's why the new album is called Positive Force. "I want to put out a positive feeling," says Steve. "It's so much more fun to get people all excited and uplifted."
And like its predecessor, 2010′s also aptly titled Wondervisions, Positive Force really is uplifting, straight outta the idyllic, tree-lined streets of Steve's hometown of Fredon, deep in rural New Jersey, where he wrote and recorded this album. (Listen closely and you can hear the local crickets in a couple of songs.) Maybe it's a little more burnished, leisurely and cunningly layered this time, but there's still that winsome Delicate Steve charm, by turns tender and triumphant, of songs like "Big Time Receiver" or "Afria Talks to You." These are eleven soulful, unabashedly heartfelt variations on the theme of joie de vivre, and each of them is kind of irresistible.
Steve not only played all the instruments on the album – very much including the lyrical and virtuosic guitar that defines the album – but he recorded the entire thing, and mixed it too. And that's all very impressive, but the thing to remember is, Steve is first and foremost a songwriter. His compositions have verses and choruses and sometimes even bridges. It's just that he doesn't happen to be a vocalist. So he gets his guitar to do that. That's why, funnily and miraculously enough, this is instrumental music you can sing along to.
Actually, a few songs do have vocals – besides "Two Lovers," there's "Big Time Receiver," "Touch," and "Redeemer." (Steve sings, joined occasionally by Christian Peslak and Mickey Sanchez from the crackerjack Delicate Steve live band) And even then, the human voice is just another instrument. "As guitar-driven as this album might be," Steve says, "I didn't want it to feel like an instrumental record. I wanted it to have a more encompassing thing, so it couldn't be called instrumental." So Steve calls it wordless music.
But where on earth does this wordless music come from? Steve says the inspirations for Positive Force included a bunch of classic rock, like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Kinks. You can hear the Beach Boys in "Love," the title of "Afria Talks to You" is a deliberately misspelled reference to Sly Stone, the guitar playing on "Tallest Heights" is Steve's tribute to Michael Jackson's vocal style, and "Luna" is a tribute to Miles Davis. Steve's ultra-expressive, melodic slide work hails back to Derek & the Dominos and George Harrison, and I hear some serious proto-Delicate Steve in Santana's sublime "Samba Pa Ti," not to mention various Afro-pop and all reggae's sunsplashed variations.
But there's a futuristic gleam to Delicate Steve that deletes all comparison to just about anything except maybe contemporaries like Yeasayer, Ratatat and the late, great Ponytail. Yeasayer's Anand Wilder, a big Delicate Steve fan, said the music reminded him of early '80s stuff by French-Beninese musician Wally Badarou, who also made bright, upbeat music drenched in ecstatic sunshine. (That explains the title of "Wally Wilder.")
You might notice the hot licks all over Positive Force. Or you might not, since they're so tastefully deployed. That's a big reason why Steve has become a go-to guitarist in the New York-area underground. One night in December last year, he played at downtown NYC avant music club the Stone with a riveting side project by Anand Wilder – and he was so great that the next band, which featured members of Javelin, Man Man and Cibo Matto, asked him to sit in. In 2011, he did an exquisite collaborative single with the great Brooklyn band Callers, sat in with Nat Baldwin from Dirty Projectors, Akron/Family, Fang Island, Janka Nabay, Yellow Ostrich and Ra Ra Riot, and that May, the Delicate Steve live band backed up Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington on some smokin' Minutemen covers at yours truly's Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute concert in New York.
All this stuff happens not just because Steve is a splendid musician but because he and his music exude what we call in the business "a good vibe." That feeling permeates every nook and cranny of this record. In a world that does its level best to validate every bitter, cynical thought you've ever had, Positive Force is, in its own delightful way, provocative – it challenges you to accept unqualified sweetness and warmheartedness. "The world is already so full of stuff," Steve observes. "So if you're going to put something in, why not make it something good, instead of adding more negativity. That's part of the mission statement.
"If Delicate Steve's music were any more polished, it wouldn't be half as intriguing or anywhere near as much fun."- The New York Times
"His complex tunes flirt with tropicalia, polyrhythms and pop, but the overall instrumental sound is not quite as straightforward. With waves of sound effects and electronics, Delicate Steve's music is far more dense than it is delicate." – NPR: World Café 'Next'
Flush with six-string personality, Wondervisions shifts smoothly from Pavement's psychedelic cowlicks ("Welcome-Begin") to Dirty Projectors' zigzagging Afro-riffs ("Butterfly") to the synth and acoustic slide guitar of heartbreaking march "Don't Get Stuck (Proud Elephants)." – SPIN
"the feeling you get when you've got a great big mug of beer, with a picturesquely appropriate head of foam on top and the prettiest girl in the bar sitting right next to you and EVERYTHING'S going right with the world. God, you just want to rip all your clothes off, take one for the road and just run into the ocean, hand-in-hand with that pretty girl. Delicate Steve could help make all of this a reality, we believe." – Daytrotter
"Wondervisions is right- a questing starry-eyed kind of joy infuses frisky nuggets..whether this is post rock, space rock or ad-hoc, it's hard to say, but who needs taxonomy when music feels this good?" – MOJO
"Marion's approach varies, but his surprisingly soulful songs consistently connect, a significant feat considering we only hear his voice through a Fender." – SPIN
"Steve's a good host, never abusing his eclecticism—he gently takes our hand and introduces us to our foreign and spacey surroundings." – L Magazine
"It's an instrumental project with some genius twists." – Stereogum
"...a very lascivious sound and hovering vocals...Listless and languid phrasing." - Anthony Mansuy/ ROLLING STONE July-2010
"Front man Tucker Rountree manages to echo both Thurston Moore and Lou Reed with his half-sung, half-spoken lyrics about being young, broke, and in love." - Jamie Peck / Village Voice -July 2011
Celestial Shore have an obvious Beach Boys tip about them, but they twin it with a love of Math Rock - the twisting guitar and synth patterns snake around like a loose hose, drenching the song in a shimmering nostalgia. It takes the simplicity and innately classic sound of The Beach Boys harmonies and filters that through the clutter of the 21st century. It means it avoids being yet another yesteryear trip, and becomes something truly inventive. To paraphrase the great Jean Luc Godard, it's not who you steal from but where you take it.