The irony of Delicate Steve’s name becomes apparent just a few bars into the band’s debut, Wondervisions: Their mostly instrumental arrangements may be fussy and multifaceted, but they’re built around muscular electric guitar riffs and African tribal rhythms that are anything but delicate. Though the five-piece band immediately invites comparisons to acts like Battles and Holy Fuck, there’s a keen pop sensibility to Wondervisions‘s songs that makes the album accessible and relatively light. It’s intricate, sure, but it doesn’t go all math rock.
Multi-instrumentalist Steve Marion does much of the heavy lifting for the band, composing the bulk of the songs and producing the record with a spot-on ear for pop hooks and oddball sound effects. The dissonant, phase-shifted reverb that opens “Welcome-Begin” eventually gives way to a deceptively complex yet cheerful sounding electric guitar figure and sustained synthesizer notes. If Marion had a heavier hand at the mixing board, the overall effect might have proven grating, but the song works as a focused, effective opening statement for the album and for the band itself.
Other than “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble,” which includes a multi-tracked vocal chant in its refrain, the album’s songs are entirely instrumentals. What impresses most about Delicate Steve is their mastery of creating specific moods, as “Sugar Splash” makes use of some inventive percussion sounds and tinny, high-pitched guitar riffs to capture the sound of a headrush. “Don’t Get Stuck (Proud Elephants)” is even better, building to a soaring B section worthy of Animal Collective or Arcade Fire. Despite layering multiple melodies, with airy synths running contrapuntal to a husky, full-bodied electric guitar passage, “Don’t Get Stuck” sounds simply effortless. The title track is perhaps the most ambitious song, with a bass-rattling rhythm section that pushes the band’s World Music influences to the foreground. Unlike Vampire Weekend, who use cultural appropriation as an end unto itself, Delicate Steve uses their African-inspired rhythms as a foundation for more forward-thinking experimentation. That their experiments manage to be successful without sacrificing basic tunefulness makes Wondervisions a winning debut record.