During the process of researching an artist whose album I review, I make a point to check out the press release for the record in question. In addition to potentially useful background information, I sometimes gain insight into what the band might be hoping to achieve, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive light in which all albums are painted in press releases. Upon first glance, the press release (written by hip essayist Chuck Klosterman) for Wondervisions, the debut album of Jersey-based five-piece Delicate Steve, reads as the most overwrought one yet. However, there is some undeniable truth in Klostermans self-aware hyperbole: Wondervisions is one of the more intriguing albums to surface so far in 2011.
The greatest challenge in reviewing Wondervisions has been sorting out any frame of reference for the benefit of an audience, especially an audience assumed to be completely new to Delicate Steve. Wondervisions is one of those increasingly rare albums that sounds like nothing else out there. Going one step further, the debut of Delicate Steve is impossible to label. Its an instrumental album, yes, but its not post-rock, math rock, or any form of electronic dance music – it’s a bit too avant-garde to be pure guitar pop, either.
On “Welcome-Begin”, Wondervisions opens with jarring guitar reverb that recalls Pavement, promptly switching gears into something completely different. Layers of guitar riffs that are anything but delicate mix with cacophonous synths, resulting in something chaotically melodic. Luckily for Delicate Steve, Wondervisions is the kind of album that can get away with a song as redundantly named as Welcome-Begin, actually demanding audaciously titled transition tracks like Source (Connection), Source (Construction), and Source (Bridge).
The Ballad of Speck and Pebble is one of the more orderly songs from Wondervisions. The sole track to feature any vocals, Speck and Pebble swaps turbulence for Afro-pop rhythms and its infectiousness is evocative of Dirty Projectors. On Sugar Splash, African rhythms continue, but the riffs are so high-pitched that they are barely recognizable as coming from a guitar.
Sandwiched between Sugar Splash and Source (Construction) is Attitude/Gratitude, which is short and sweet enough to pass as another transition track, but its acoustic guitar strumming and synth lines are warmly affecting, strong enough to make it listenable in its own right. The title track takes the experimentation with guitars and syncopated rhythms even further, without losing any of the tunefulness that makes Wondervisions more accessible than similarly eccentric albums.
By the time Dont Get Stuck (Proud Elephants) rolls around, it’s blatantly apparent how Delicate Steve can take these elements and inspirations and effortlessly make something distinct and compelling each time. On the exuberant lead single, Butterfly, accelerated drum machine beats and relaxed slide-guitar licks build up a level of tension that is almost unnerving. Rather than offering release, “Butterfly” comes to an abrupt end. Moments such as this allow Wondervisions to defy predictability.
Wondervisions is an album of contradictions and eccentricities. Its experimental, but the pop sensibilities of Delicate Steve are too strong for the band to be inaccessible. Always confident, the tunes are both meticulously controlled songs and unrestrained jams. It recalls a wide range of sounds and influences, but has blended them into something idiosyncratic. Even after repeated listens, the debut of Delicate Steve remains significantly inscrutable.