Review: Delicate Steve ‘Positive Force’

Rating: 4/5
Release: July 10, 2012

To describe Delicate Steve, one is forced into useless and annoying comparisons or influences. For instance, a very brief encounter with his sound will conjure in the mind the alchemical admixture of Thin Lizzy and Ratatat’s guitar stylings, and maybe the rhythms and instrumentation of a band like Yeasayer. There’s much more to Delicate Steve, though—his music demands full immersion, especially live. The band, led by Steve, has again made the lead guitar interesting, which is a major feat. It’s hard not to hear something classic in Delicate Steve, something very ’70s, but it’s also in the final analysis very of the moment.

You should know in advance that Delicate Steve is primarily an instrumental project, though the “Positive Force” LP, which follows 2010’s “Wondervisions,” does contain some vocals, particularly of the Beach Boys variety. “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.”

Album opener, “Ramona Reborn” (the mirror image of the LP closer “Luna”), with its beat and infinitely optimistic and “positive” vibrations, stands on its own but also serves rather like a three-minute introduction to the rest of the album. This may seem like an obvious observation, but very few bands know how to introduce an album to the listener. There is an art to it, and Delicate Steve has it down pat. The following track, “Two Lovers,” then unfolds with distant ambient synthesizers and acoustic ploddings, suddenly shifts into what is almost a pure DNA extraction of John Frusciante fused with Van Morrison. A dense swirl of additional instrumentation lifts the track into a more magical ether. And with such a title, clearly it’s a romantic ballad, which is makes it highly subversive fun in this modern age of music.

One of the album’s great tracks has to be “Big Time Receiver,” which calls to mind the recently laid to rest Ween’s album “The Mollusk.” Steve’s guitar playing on this track bends into the realm of the synthesizer, while not getting so lost in analogue waveforms that it loses all characteristics of the instrument. The vocal harmonies on this track would make Brian Wilson blush, but there are no lyrics to be found here, and there certainly is no need for them.

“Touch” veers a bit too close to the Panda Bear paradigm in its lean 1:03 running time, but the accordion is a welcome touch and it’s a shame that the song wasn’t further developed because it deserves something much larger and grandiose instead of serving as a transition between sides A and B. There’s a bit of schmaltz on the following track “Positive Force” but Steve knows precisely when to dispense with acoustic picking and drop some electric lead. And while it’s not one of the album’s strongest tracks, the possibility exists that this could grow into a good live number—something to relax the house for a stretch.

It’s worth noting at this point that Steve played all the instruments on “Positive Force,” as well as recorded and mixed the album—hard to believe when one encounters the track “Redeemer,” which is a brilliant instrumental. Steve makes the entire song sing, and the guitar melodies are simply an added aural pleasure. On “Afria Talks To You,” Delicate Steve seems to conjure the ghost of George Harrison in more than one way, but he wouldn’t be the first to do and do it well (see: The Sleepy Jackson track “Good Dancers” and others). There’s also a little funk to this track in addition to all its other elements, which sounds like a left field genre ingredient but serves the song well.

Another album highlight is “Tallest Heights,” a song that fuses Steve’s molten, not-quite-synthesizer guitar playing into African rhythms. Usually it takes an entire band of skilled musicians to pull off this sound on record, but Steve manages this all on his lonesome—a feat, to be sure. Delicate Steve wisely choice to close the album with “Luna,” a pretty and relatively spare piano-driven ballad with some synths and other effects percolating in its atmosphere. Apparently it’s a tribute to Miles Davis, but it’s pure Delicate Steve nonetheless.

If the Delicate Steve live band rolls through town, be sure to see them. I had the pleasure of seeing a live performance at PS1 in the summer of 2011 and more recently, and I can assure you will not leave disappointed.