Every time I put on Wondervisions, the new Delicate Steve album, it sounds different, with each spin bringing new melodies and rhythms to the surface. The album as a whole remains a marvel, but it never seems the same way twice. It’s almost like a kaleidoscope, with multiple layers of sound tumbling into and out of brightly-colored patterns. But that’s the wrong metaphor — too mechanical. If anything, the album is full of warm, gentle pleasures. It’s sinewy, electric, fluid. It’s more like a curious pet — a Cheshire cat or perhaps a psychedelic seal — and each time you look, it seems to be performing some new impossible trick for you. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that Steve Marion, who wrote and recorded the album in his parents’ house in Fredon, NJ, supposedly plays over 40 instruments. This is someone who recorded his first album at age 12 on a 4-track (or was it age 4 on a 12-track?), who spent the last 10 years honing his craft. This all might be promotional hyperbole, but Steve certainly knows his tricks, and his greatest one of all is writing instrumental indie rock full of good vibes and easy wonder.
The album opens with one of those loud, shambolic guitar anthems reminiscent of Pavement in their heyday, but it quickly shifts into a jazzy bop, full of bright meandering riffs and ascending guitar leads. Marion’s playing immediately comes across as virtuosic, full of complex rhythms and harmonies, and in this alone suggests that you’re no longer in Pavement territory. In the second track, “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble,” which borrows both the tone and spirit (and the chord changes) of Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Marion reveals that his indie rock leanings are everywhere matched by true Afro-pop craftsmanship. Here, and throughout the album, he seamlessly blends the fragmented structures of the former with the rolling polyrhythms and intricate instrumentation of the latter. In fact, the next number, “Sugar Splash,” takes a turn into jazz and funk with its harmonics, but keeps the African groove going in the rhythm section. It concludes with a series of screeching guitar riffs over a thumping, clacking beat, bringing together two otherwise discrete worlds in a single powerful mix. It’s no fluke that Marion’s signed with Luaka Bop, for he easily taps the tradition of cross-cultural pop experimentation upon which that label was built, but also gives it a thoroughly contemporary spin.
But what really distinguishes this album is its lightness of touch. Marion seems comfortable enough with his craft to take his time, and each track unfolds in an easy, relaxed manner. He also builds a lot of space into his mixes, so there’s room for the listener to sink in and indulge. (Most often, he leaves a giant gap between the guitars at the front of the mix and the rhythm section at the back, creating two parallel walls of sound and thereby beating Phil Spector at his own game.) In all this, the feel of the album recalls the Allman Brothers rather than Paul Simon or David Byrne. Its full of gorgeous slide leads and doubled ascending guitar riffs, and each song takes its own sweet time to noodle into a real groove. Marion has mastered the art of slow, rhythmic build-ups and powerful releases, and while he’s essentially a one-man-show, he respects the art of the jam band; indeed, his largely wordless album may be the first and only proper sequel to the Allmans’ “Mountain Jam,” being just as long and offering the same sense of collective tension-and-release.
In more contemporary terms, Delicate Steve’s idiosyncratic sound is winning comparisons to Dirty Projectors and Yeasayers, but I think, as a whole, the band is more closely aligned with acts like Fang Island and Surfer Blood. This is an album that trades in classic rock gestures but nicely avoids all the macho poses and grandstanding that comes with the genre. Marion’s unafraid to reach for the monster riff, the virtuosic solo, the show-off rhythm line, but he does so with a certain goofy abandon, for the giddy, silly sake of it. Do yourself a favor and take a look at the video for “Wondervisions,” featuring Marion and Nat Baldwin in a one-on-one basketball match. The song itself is a funky little marvel, played mostly on a synthesizer and full of Stevie Wonder’s best grooves. The guitar enters briefly to rip through the melody of “Reelin’ in the Years” and exits, leaving a trail of silliness in its wake. But the video itself, shot on crappy film stock and full of all the old school markers of high school sports — the sneakers, the shorts, the gym itself — perfectly captures the feel and significance of this band. Like the guileless ballers on the screen, Delicate Steve’s got surprisingly smooth moves, and the album lets you see the wonder of each one. It goes for the layup every time, sinks it, and you’ll have no problem cheering along. Call it dork rock, I guess, but it’s a genre with legs.