Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 10: Thrill of the Arts (Vulfpeck, 2015)

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There are moments of resonance that you sense listening to Vulfpeck. Feelings of familiarity that invite you to relax, knowing you're in good hands. To call them cliches might be misleading, yet there’s a reason that cliches are cliches. Sometimes they just sound so damn satisfying, you're best to leave them alone. Vulfpeck places you right smack dab in the middle of head-bobbing territory and sprinkles just enough micro-subversions throughout—not to knock you off balance, but to get your body rocking. 

After a run of five six-track EPs, Vulfpeck's 2015 release, Thrill of the Arts, appears as a glorious full-length offering, both establishing and expanding the group's aesthetic, pulling into the Vulf-fold featured singers who blend seamlessly into the backing-band foundation. This is feel-good funk. Sweet funk. Call it “The Gospel of ‘I Want You Back,’” that Jackson 5 song that holds so many secrets to creating grin-inducing music.

What separates Vulfpeck from other modem funk bands who, like them, who have studied tradition to the point where novelty and preciousness recede into a background of earnestness and joy, is their injection of humor and the absurd. Hilarious post-production overlays duck in and crack you up—and while you might think such “interruptions” would take you out of the groove, nope: the levity only opens you up to more of the good stuff. Basketball net-swooshing, dog-barkings, a chipmonk’d backing choir—bring it on. Even the most outlandishtrack of all—a comically absurdguided meditation—can actually relax you. It’s this marriage of craft with wild irreverence that makes these tracks pop. It’s actually surprising we don’t see this type of thing more often. In the words of Dutch pianist Misha Mengleberg, “People go pissing one moment and have deep philosophical thoughts the next. Or maybe both at the same time.”

The third track, for example, “Funky Duck,” provides a thumbnail sketch of a contemporary on-the-scene uber-hipster. He’s a sort of modern-day Killer Joe, only instead of playing the horses, jingling coinage, and wearing neatly-pressed double-breasted form-fitted pin-striped suits, the Funky Duck is a self-aware, Ovaltine-drinking, and funky—oh so funky—duck. The vocals, by past Vulf-collaborator Antwaun Stanley, are powerful and confident, and includes a hook that is so catchy, but, as Vulfpeck leader and multi-instrumentalist Jack Stratton says, “you can't sing—it's too difficult.” There is the slightest whisper of parody, but it's so well crafted and presented with such sincerity and respect, that it's no joke. It takes a deep seriousness to be this hilarious, and a ton of work to appear so effortless.

Another vocal track, “Game Winner,” featuring Charles Jones, takes seriously the idea of underpinning a love song with a sports metaphor. There is no wink to the microphone, and that's what makes it so wonderful. Clear overtones of groups like the Delfonics can be heard in the arrangement, mingling with melodies plucked from ’80s and early-’90s R&B to create a track that is, well, you know, a slam dunk. 

Without a doubt, there is a relaxed, live vibe to Vulfpeck's tracks, but a clear-headed compositional concision reigns. As a band that functions without a singer most of the time, it's an important skill. The danger of instrumental overindulgence is always lurking. So they get in, kill it, and get the hell outta there. Thank you masked man.

The playing is top-notch, the performances are great, the lyrics are strong; but beyond all that, the music sounds so good. Stratton, who mixes all of Vulfpeck's tracks (in addition to creating and editing their videos, and handling all of the business aspects) brings an understanding of production that puts to shame many of the waveform-gobbling, compressed-to-death pop music you might hear on whatever today's equivalent of radio is. In fact, Stratton even co-created a real-live compressor plugin—called the Vulf Compressor, of course—that sounds as good as any on the market today.

If you’ve ever seen a Vulfpeck video on Youtube, you’ll have heard, in its introductory seconds, a brief harmonic progression that seems to contain within it the whole Vulf universe. It’s hard to explain, but it functions as an audio calling card or logotype. You can hear it evoked in three different places on this album: at the start of the supremely listenable Christmas tune, “Christmas in LA,” during the aforementioned guided meditation track, and at the very end of the album opener, “Welcome to Vulf Records,” which acts, like all great overtures should, to survey the whole plot of land and plant seeds of what's to come. I get excited every time I hear that progression, and I can’t wait to hear it more and more as Vulfpeck progresses.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.