“Some say the unexamined life is not worth living. Well, the unexamined thought, it’s not worth thinking” – Jack Stratton
Let’s try and forget about all that comes with Vulfpeck besides their music. Let’s try and ignore for a moment the genius of their branding: the impeccable attention to detail and genius in creating their own typography. Try and forget their heavily acknowledged success in crowd-sourcing all of the finances for their albums. Let’s try and forget that they (but mostly Jack Stratton) have a treasure trove of hilarious, eccentric and character-based YouTube videos to match their music that make them so goddamn lovable. Let’s try and forget that Joe Dart could be (is) one of the best bassists of our time. Let’s just try and ignore Theo Katzman’s extraordinary, repeated ability to write a nearly perfect pop song. And let’s try and ignore that Woody Goss is a walking, talking funky carnival pianist who plays for perfection. Let’s not let Jack Stratton’s gorgeous kneecaps distract us. Let’s try and forget about how magical it feels to show someone to Antwaun Stanley and “1612” for the first time. Or what “Rango III” can do to your nerve-endings, try and ignore that, too. Or that Bernard Purdie — THE Bernard Purdie, THE world’s most recorded drummer, THE inventor of the world-famous “Purdie shuffle” — played with them at two of the band’s four sold-out shows at Brooklyn Bowl and Summer Stage in New York City this summer. And, with all our might, let’s try and forget about that first-round review of the album published by the Michigan Daily earlier this week. For a moment, let’s just try and focus: let’s talk about why Vulfpeck’s most recent masterpiece, The Beautiful Game, is a nearly perfect album.
Let’s go song by song, beginning with the Klezmer clarinet solo in The Beautiful Game’s first track, “Sweet Science.” Found here is one of the most hauntingly beautiful album openers to be found on a 21st century album. Michael Winograd, a klezmer music aficionado from Brooklyn, NY, draws listeners and fans in with what avid fan and OG Vulfpeck aficionado, Madeleine Chone, calls “a mournful, beautiful Jewish tribute to open up a deliciously funky musical present.” A better description can’t be found. It’s also important to note here to recognize how truly awesome, or rather how applaudable and original it is, to see the inclusion of such a niche musical genre enter a popular music space.
Tempo change, we’ve arrived at “Animal Spirits.” It’s the cute, older cousin of another one of Theo Katzman’s lyrical pop hits, “Back Pocket.” Woody Goss with the tingaling keys, Dart’s giving us the deep, deep bass. The Jackson 5 inspiration cannot be denied. Stratton said it himself in a recent YouTube video: “You don’t need a PhD to know that this is similar to the ostinato rhythm that Louie Shelton is playing on the Jackson’s 5 ‘I Want You Back.’” No, no you don’t need a PhD to realize that, in the same way that you don’t need a PhD to realize this song is nothing sort of pop greatness. There are quippy, kind-of strange lyrics about astrology charts and mutual Facebook friends, sure. But isn’t that half the fun of any other song? Production aside, isn’t music about making something that is given to everyone your own? Aren’t we allowed to assume what we want about the meaning of the 16 mutual friends they share? Yes, yes we are. Vulf graduated from the same high-bar university as the writers of this paper did: they are smart, and they are clever. So expect something original that is also in line with their branding. Or just put your headphones in and groove, goddamnit.
“1 for 1, DiMaggio” is similarly strange in its conception and lyricism. I don’t know anything about baseball, but I know the passion that lies within it (go Cubs). The back and forth between Vulfpeck-regular, University of Michigan native and one of the best soul voices around today, Antwaun Stanley, and Jack Stratton is quippy, clever, fun and backed by an instrumental that Vulfpeck has been teasing for too long. It’s a sports disco song – what a fantastic thing.
With “Dean Town” all the ladies and men in the room drop their pants and jaws.Here we get the man, the myth, the legend: the Joe Dart, a bassist god serving up some deep-dish dirty traveling basslines for three minutes and thirty three seconds. In this song you find the funk that makes Vulfpeck so beloved. The drums in the back, Woody’s keys bouncing in halfway through, mind-exploding by the three-minute mark because Dart is still going, still carrying that bassline. Here is a song that many are categorizing as one of the best Vulf tracks yet, and I agree.
From just one listen it’s easy to assume that “Conscious Club” is the brainchild of the band’s informal leader and hopefully the father of my children, Jack Stratton. An instrumental of “Conscious Club” was previewed in Vulfpeck’s 2015 album, The Thrill of the Arts. In its full conception, Stratton’s song is marrying Cheryl Lynn to King Floyd to some fantastical groovy operatic dream he once had of a German funk club with the entry password, “Ich bein Dart.” Laura Mace, a destined-for-greatness soul singer, makes her Vulfpeck debut in this track, balancing out the rich monotone of Stratton’s explanations. Historically, funk isn’t a magnet for storytelling. The best funk was first made for the foot-tapping, hip-shaking, and buttcheek-slapping. But somehow, in a way that only Vulfpeck could, this song does both.
Lovechild of the Vulfpeck boys, fellow University of Michigan grad and a phenomenal musician in his own right, Joey Dosik appears on the album as well. His alto sax solo highlights the high tempo, James Brown-esque seventh track, “Daddy, He Got a Tesla.” This one is a funk lover’s dream: Dart carrying some sexy bassline, Pegasus Warning and his intermittent, perfectly pitched scatting, Goss and that piano solo at minute two… we’re sitting there whispering “yes,” “oh,” “baby,” “give it to me.” Sexual innuendo implied: good funk is for some the sonic equivalent to getting some.
“El Chepe” is one of the two funk trance tracks on the album that we haven’t seen from Vulf before. Here is a low volume exploration of a track that is diving into something a little less funky than we’re used to from the Vulfpeck boys. “Margery, My First Car,” is similar in this, highlighting the variety of funky smoothness that Vulf had been hiding. Christine Hucal’s ethereal vocals ease us into a low tempo, layered track that brings back instrumental fourth track from the band’s 2013 EP, My First Car.
“Cory Wong” is funky as all hell. In the classic Vulfpeck fashion, it sounds too good to be true: too natural and free-flowing to be anything other than improvisational. Just like “El Chepe,” and frankly every other track on this record, there are educated musicians who have honed in on technical skills to create Donald Fagan-like levels of perfection.
Any critical review of artistic expression will always and forever require context. Forming an argument around something when you aren’t educated in it, especially when it is something that is highly respected and enjoyed, is a disservice to both the artist and critic. Because how are you to judge something you don’t understand? Constructive, respected criticisms aren’t based on feeling alone.
You don’t have to like Vulfpeck, and whether or not you listen to them at all is completely your prerogative. You have your right to free speech and all. But help yourself out and walk into the lion’s den with a chair.
Also if you don’t like Vulfpeck, you’re wrong. Ich bein Dart! – MZ