The music of Delicate Steve is not at all easy to describe.
It bothers me when someone writing about music drops the names of like six other artists to describe a performer, as in: “[Insert band name] sounds like Fleet Foxes combined with Yo La Tengo, with a little bit of Hot Hot Heat and Ingrid Michaelson mixed in, along with a heavy influence of Jefferson Starship and a nod to the songwriting of Lydia Lunch.”
The thing is, avoiding those sorts of comparisons entirely is kind of hard to do. The human brain categorizes the things it observes in order to understand them. Scientific research on the way the brain processes information, and uses language to differentiate and group it, has led to the idea of “semantic spaces” in the brain; categories of words with similar meanings that are reflected in the electromagnetic patterns of our neurons. We need to group things as alike or different in order to make sense of the world around us, there’s no way around it.
So I guess I should give myself, and anyone else who writes about music, a break. But I still tend to think of it as an intellectual cop-out to describe a piece of music by comparing it to another one. And I try to avoid it in my own writing as much as possible, though I frequently fail.
One cool byproduct of our tendency to categorize music is that it can allow musicians to amaze us by challenging our assumptions, breaking through artificial barriers and creating sounds that are exciting because they are difficult to understand. For decades, established acts have tried to do this by appropriating sounds that will be foreign to their fans’ ears, like The Beatles recording with Ravi Shankar or Paul Simon making a record with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. You don’t need to be a millionaire and travel the world hiring “World Music”[ii] acts to find and utilize these sounds, though. In fact, nobody needs to know anything about what you are or how to describe you.
Take Delicate Steve, a mostly instrumental band fronted by New Jersey twentysomething Steve Marion. They broke out in 2011, after signing with Luaka Bop, the label founded by David Byrne which primarily features artists whose styles are non-American. The label hired freaking Chuck Klosterman to write a bio of the band that was completely (and absurdly) fictional. The press release, titled “Critics Unilaterally Concur: Delicate Steve is a Band That Makes Music (click the link, it’s worth the read),” is a farce that plays on all our assumptions about how journalists and bloggers report on art. Klosterman had never heard Delicate Steve’s music, he knew nothing about the band members.
The thing is, the music is so unusual, so difficult to categorize, that some kind of fantastic origin story is believable, if not welcome. It’s all powered by Marion’s sharp and clear guitar picking, so emotive and elaborate in its phrasings that it dwells in the space we’re used to a lead vocal occupying in a pop song. “Afria Talks to You,” off the 2012 album Positive Force, is a piece of ambient electronica built around some of his spiraling, stream-of-consciousness work on the six-string:
If you’re as hooked as I am, go ahead and listen to Delicate Steve’s recently released live album, downloadable for whatever you’re willing to pay on Bandcamp:
Delicate Steve is currently on tour, and will be playing dates in Woodstock and New York City this summer.
[i] That kind of sentence can just make you sound like a know-it-all douche trying to impress someone with all the cool band names you know. It also assumes that your reader shares all the associations and opinions you have about all those other musicians, which is pretty presumptuous. But the worst thing about it might be that it could mean, as a writer, you just lack the vocabulary to describe what you are observing without comparing it to something else. Ouch. A lot of ego massaging going on with “music math,” I think.
[ii] What a jarring example of Americentrism that we look at the music that the entire rest of humanity produces as just another small subgenre within the marketing spectrum of entertainment traditions we identify as native to our culture (which ironically is a culture of non-natives).