Where Bootsy’s funk meets Stratton’s mix: Vulfpeck returns with ‘Mr. Finish Line’
Let those opening notes of “Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together” hit you hard in the chest; let Theo Katzman, Joey Dosik and Antwaun Stanley’s falsettos wrap you in their warm embrace. This song, this right here is tenderness, warmth, happiness. It’s what a baby’s laugh or the flutter of an angel’s wings sound like. It’s low volume, funky and irresistible.
Every fall for the last three years Vulfpeck has graced us with a new record, and they have never disappointed. Oct. 2015 brought us Thrill of the Arts, a masterful album advancing the reputation their previous EP’s established — that these kids with their Wurlitzer and Fender bass could groove and groove hard. Later that year in March, they performed “Back Pocket” on Stephen Colbert and in June, played to a packed crowd at Bonnaroo Music Festival. By the time fall came around, The Beautiful Game was waiting for us. Then, that March, they backed up Michael McDonald and Solange on “What a Fool Believes” at Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival in Florida. Things were happening for Ann Arbor’s prodigal sons, and things were happening quickly.
With this constant stream of music from the band and its members, their renown within and outside of the funk community has grown. The unadulterated talent of its members and genius of bandleader Jack Stratton have cemented Vulfpeck as innovators and inheritors of the genre. They’ve grounded themselves in social media platforms, using Facebook and YouTube to not only advertise their music, but also fund it. They're bringing funk music into the digital age, but simultaneously grounding themselves in its roots. Bernard Purdie, David T. Walker, James Gadson, Bootsy Collins — musicians known for their work with The Temptations, Steely Dan and James Brown to name a few — have collaborated with Vulfpeck on this album and previous. Because, in the end, greats recognize great. It’s just how it goes.
And so, two albums, four EP’s and a silent album later, they’re close to perfecting the sound that started on North Campus all those years ago. On Mr. Finish Line, Vulfpeck is sleek and tailored. It’s in their sound, but it’s also in their look. While their music videos are still styled in the vein of live sessions, the production quality has subtly increased. It’s in the camera work of “Hero Town” and “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh,” and the change of setting for “Birds of a Feather.” The band is growing into their own now, moving away from the bandcamp kids they were on Mit Peck.
And that’s why it has taken me so long to collect my thoughts on this album. It is undeniably different from its previous albums, but the difference is hard to place. Is it the sound, the style? Is the funk inherently changed? No. Vulfpeck has taught me more about funk music, and music in general, than any other band I’ve listened to, be it through Stratton’s tutorial videos or the extensive knowledge of the band’s fan community. So come Mr. Finish Line, I felt prepared. I thought I could sit and write confidently and with conviction about whatever piece of genius would await me on Nov. 7, 2017.
But then I listened to it the morning of the release and was left with neither conviction nor confidence. I didn’t know what to say because, to my shock, I didn’t immediately love it. The unidentifiable difference clung to me. The album felt frontloaded with the single releases I’d already worn out from repeated listens, the pathos that once hung heavy on the notes in “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh” no longer tugging at the heartstrings. On their own, these songs move the soul, have groove, but placed at the start of the album, they don’t really seem to fit. They’re too perfect, too curated. The funk is still there, but Vulfpeck’s laidback, do-it-yourself style seems slightly diminished. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Because despite this, they still have their weirdness. It’s all in the song “Mr. Finish Line,” the third track on the album and a breath of fresh air after the overworn openers. “Mr. Finish Line,” the spiritual successor to songs like “Back Pocket” and “Animal Spirits,” breaks away from the heaviness and delivers us back into the band’s signature silliness. The poppy beat is perfectly layered on top of the low volume bass line and withheld drums. And if there’s a word to describe this song it’s that — withheld, almost to the point of bursting. Christine Hucal and Theo Katzman’s vocals on it sound breathy, as if straining to get out the last bit of each note; Cory Wong and Katzman’s guitars are clipped, a style reminiscent of Thrill’s “Cory Wong.” It’s a song that demonstrates how far the group has come. The differences between The Beautiful Game’s “Conscious Club” and “Mr. Finish Line” is a microcosm of their growth: The former is catchy and jokey in a way that approaches garish, while the latter layers vocals, interludes of a sports announcer and, as well as interjections from the members expertly.
Realizing their growth is essential for understanding the album, and what ultimately allowed me to push past my initial discontent with the different sound. While yes, they are breaking with tradition, they are repeatedly grounding themselves in the familiar. That a song like “Mr. Finish Line” leads into “Tee Time” is a transition capable of erasing any initial doubts about the album. It is a smooth move from pop to instrumental, with shouts from the band coming in at the beginning and end, alluding to the in-session-style they champion. And then there’s the song itself: With Woody Goss at its helm, “Tee Time” is a fast-paced, piano driven track. This is a song in which you can hear how the members have and continue to learn from each other. Goss’s piano drives this song like Dart’s bass does on “Dean Town” and Stratton’s keys do on “Welcome to Vulf Records.” Even as the snare and kick drum come in, Goss carries us through the whirlwind until we’re dizzy. And when that final echo of the snare hits at the end of the song, we are thrown, with barely a second to catch our breath, into the catharsis of Joey Dosik’s “Running Away.”
This album, although packed with R&B and funk legends (see: James Gadson, Bootsy Collins) marks the return of Vulfpeck’s personal legends. Singer Antwaun Stanley, guitarist Corey Wong and multi-instrumentalist Joey Dosik are back for Mr. Finish Line, returning to their roles as frequent collaborators. Unlike previous releases, however, the musicians are featured more prominently on Mr. Finish Line than ever before. Stanley and Dosik’s voices are like honey, their powerful vocals adding another dimension to the songs. In this vein, “Running Away,” written and sung by Dosik, is one of the strongest songs on the album. It’s a ballad ridden with soul and driven by the beat of James Gadson, a seasoned drummer who recorded with the likes of Bill Withers and other Motown artists.
There’s always been a caveat when listing what musicians make up Vulfpeck The Band. Because they have musicians who return time and time again and play with them on tours, it’s easy to say that Dosik and Stanley are just as easily members as Katzman or Dart. Zeroing in on this tension, we can see now where the band is headed. The difference of this record, the return of the core four with multiple features from old and new musicians like Gadson, the fact that they dutifully cited the features on every track, the fully-formed, high production value of the songs and videos — all of this points towards Vulfpeck’s self-actualization as a rhythm section, session musicians and band.
In an interview back in 2014, Stratton talked about how his plans for Vulfpeck, even at its inception, have always been directed towards sustainability and quality in a post-iTunes, Spotify streaming era. He was looking for a group of solid musicians who could play under any musical condition, in any setting; a band that could just as easily be a house band as they could be a rhythm section.
“Coming off of being in a band, I knew rhythm sections were way more sustainable, more fun,” he explained. “So I was looking to do a four-piece with classic instrumentation … I really went into Vulfpeck thinking about sustainability and joining a band with the right people on the front-end.”
Mr. Finish Line is a realization of this goal. It’s in the name, it’s in the music, it’s in the countless features from musicians whose rhythms the four-piece can match seamlessly. Strip down Vulf to its very core, rid the songs of features and frequent collaborators, and we’ll still have low volume jams like “Vulf Pack” reminding us that these are talented musicians who are passionate about their craft. But then build it up from there. Bring in the cymbals and the synths, the high production value and motown legends. Deliver us from the jams into poppy indulgences like “Captain Hook”; greet the familiar with the unfamiliar.
This all culminates with the final track, “Captain Hook.” It’s a world of its own. With Bootsy Collins, a bass player famous for his work with James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic, contributing vocals to the chorus, “Captain Hook” introduces us to a new character, another “Funky Duck” but this time with Baby Theo rapping instead of Stanley’s driving voice. This is a song that takes some time to get used to, but ultimately, it succeeds. Something about Katzman’s clever shot at Robin Thicke (“There's no need to steal from Marvin Gaye/When the hottest hooks are public domain”), Dart’s bass solo and the juxtaposition of Collins’s baritone with Katzman’s high pitched falsetto is, in the end, Funkadelic.
While it’s instinctual to want to compare a band’s new releases with previous albums, it’s difficult to do so with Mr. Finish Line. Yes, one can reminisce on the DIY sound of Fugue State and Vollmich, but to bemoan its absence would be ignoring the trajectory the group is taking and essentially deny them a future. Stratton saw the reality of it back in 2011, how a rhythm section with four solid members is more valuable than a cemented band. He even imagined it on last year’s The Beautiful Game: “Oh the Conscience Club, Vulfpeck is the house band.” And despite this transition meaning change, difference, maybe even a little discomfort, it also means that there is some really freaking great music before us.
They’ll continue to ground themselves in funk’s past and their own. In an interview The Michigan Daily did with Katzman last year, he discussed how a large part of Vulfpeck live tends toward improvisation, audience involvement and the impulsiveness and risk-taking this entails. So while this album is a more curated piece than what we’ve received from them before, the element of surprise, of relaxed fun, will always be there. The album will continue to grow with time; it has been two weeks, and I’m back to loving “Baby I Don’t Know” just as much as I did on the first listen. So for god’s sake, just listen to “Mr. Finish Line,” cringe and eventually surrender to “Captain Hook,” let “Tee Time” sweep you up and “Running Away” set you down. Because this band, they’re taking us somewhere. And whether that be to Berlin or elsewhere, I’m not sure, but I’m in for the ride.
EDIT: A previous version of the article misidentified Collins as the bass play in "Captain Hook." Joe Dart plays bass on the song.