The whimsical tone and ingratiating melodies of Delicate Steve’s Wondervisions made for an endlessly likable debut that was an easier sell than many other instrumental rock albums, which tend to get bogged down in proggy self-indulgences. For Positive Force, man-behind-the-curtain Steve Marion sidelines the outside players who collaborated with him on Wondervisions, composing and performing the album entirely on his own. And while that makes for an impressive technical accomplishment, Positive Force emerges as a slightly more insular, stuffy effort.
Lead single “Afria Talks to You” set the underwhelming tone for the project, eschewing the robust melodies and adventurousness of standout Wondervisions cuts like “Don’t Get Stuck (Proud Elephants)” and “Butterfly” for a more straightforward lead guitar riff and 4/4 beat. It’s not that “Afria” is a poor single in and of itself, but it lacks a certain spark of ingenuity and doesn’t sound especially dissimilar from the arrangements of an indie-pop act like Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. The world music-inspired rhythms and percussion that gave Delicate Steve’s debut a more distinct flavor are downplayed on “Tallest Heights” and plodding opener “Ramona Reborn” in favor of more conventional song structures.
When Marion makes more creative use of his varied, globe-spanning influences, however, Positive Force is every bit as compelling as its predecessor. Boasting a sunny, powerful melodic hook and rollicking hand-drumline, “Wally Wilder” would have made for a far better choice for a single, while the title track’s uplifting lead melody and shifting tempos balance pop accessibility with a more progressive structure. What impresses most about Delicate Steve is the muscularity and heft of Marion’s arrangements, and that’s true of “Wally Wilder” and “Redeemer,” which features a looped vocal effect in addition to a beefy guitar riff.
Unfortunately, Marion too often loses sight of those unique selling points. Far too many of the melodic hooks are merely adequate, and he doesn’t pull any surprises from his deep knowledge of world music to compensate for that deficiency. Instead, Marion claims the album was inspired by “classic rock.” To that end, the familiar tropes he incorporates, such as the gently weeping guitar on “Love,” may make Positive Force a bit more accessible, but they also make it a less creative, forward-thinking effort than Delicate Steve’s debut.