Vulfpeck’s formidable funk misses a beat but still delivers

Monday, October 31, 2016 - 5:49pm

After meeting and collaborating during their time at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, Jack Stratton, Theo Katzman, Woody Gross and Joe Dart formed Vulfpeck as more or less a love letter to the funk legends of western civilization’s past. One of the band’s focuses has always been ensuring that their studio cuts are recorded like live tracks, using actual instruments when possible and avoiding recording multiple takes.

This may seem like semantics, but the results of their approach are readily audible through their discography. Although it is a half-step away from this ideology, Vulfpeck’s latest album, The Beautiful Game, remains true to the band’s original funk inspirations while incorporating a sleeker sound.

Although the album opens with the instrumental “Sweet Science,” the jubilant “Animal Spirits” seems a more suitable introduction. The former is a slinky, mournful clarinet solo, while the latter utilizes piano, a synthesizer, and a classic handclap sample, doing more justice to the band’s overall sound. “Animal Spirits” is also one of the most lyrically involved songs on the album, with vocalist Katzman predicting the future relationship of two individuals who have yet to meet. “This is a true love story song / A triumph and a glory song / With only one small caveat / This one hasn’t happened yet,” Katzman sings. “They’ve got 16 mutual friends.”

Approximately half of the album is comprised of instrumental tracks, which can at times struggle to hold attention. “Dean Town” and “El Chepe” are both interesting explorations, but seem out of place. They would make more sense in the space between songs during a live set than on a true album, and it’s not difficult to imagine them as entirely improvisational pieces.

Not all of the instrumental portions of the album fall into this same category, however. Grounded by a driving bass line, the bombastic pairing of saxophone and percussion (and later, piano) on “Daddy, He Got a Tesla” captures attention with ease and demonstrates how easily Vulfpeck can dominate a room, even while instruments share the spotlight.

While this is a band that rightfully prides themselves on their genuine nature, there are also moments on The Beautiful Game that border on kitschiness. Perhaps it is an intended effect, but “1 for 1, DiMaggio” feels far too much like a sing-along from a children’s television show. The instrumental craftsmanship is undeniable, but the lyrical content ranges from uncomfortable at best to patronizing at worst. Similarly, the opening moments of “Conscious Club” feel notably contrived — partially because they are. Both songs utilize scripted spoken dialogue, but it is little more than a novelty.

While these two tracks seem to fall especially flat, the album closes out confidently. “Aunt Leslie” is the most emotional centerpiece of the album, on which Katzman and regular Vulfpeck guest Antwaun Stanley flex their vocal abilities. This is immediately followed by the jammy “Cory Wong,” which evolves into what sounds like a live recording — the crowd begins cheering at about the two-minute mark and is closed out by applause and Katzman bidding the audience farewell.

As a funk outfit in the modern day, Vulfpeck have a valuable addition to their resume with The Beautiful Game, but it can at times feel haphazardly pieced together, with little cohesion beyond the wide domain of “funk.” Regardless, Vulfpeck’s technical capabilities and sheer devotion to their craft overshadow any awkward moments that may result from this lack of cohesion. 

Correction: Theo Katzman performs vocals for Vulfpeck, not Jack Stratton. The Michigan Daily regrets the error.