Placing “The Beautiful Game” Within The Unique Catalog Of Vulfpeck: An Intimate Album Review

first_imgWith Vulfpeck’s new album The Beautiful Game out for the past week, fans have had the opportunity to thoroughly peck over the new release. The pop-funk band continues to pick up fans along every turn, though new listeners might be unfamiliar with just how this new album fits into the band’s unique canon. For that, we turn to trumpeter Greg Rosen of Swift Technique, the band whose horn section recently played with Vulfpeck in Philadelphia and rocked the roof off of the Electric Factory. Rosen takes us through The Beautiful Game, introducing the album before taking a track-by-track look at the release. Stream the new album and read along below!It’s hard to take any Vulfpeck release out of its intended context. While all of their records stand up on their own, there is an inherent strategy in everything they do. Each EP or LP is a logical successor to the last one. As their popularity grows, though, they are exposed to scores of people who are not attuned to their grooves, not privy to the in-jokes and history that informs each new album.Without being intimately familiar with the personality of this band, you could be excused for feeling like an outsider. You could be excused, as a first time listener, for not latching on to these songs in the way long time Vulf fans undoubtedly have. You could be excused for not laughing at Jack’s monologue in “Conscious Club.” You could be excused for being thrown off balance by the musical and production curve-balls hurled towards you at every turn.There is, however, no excuse for not breaking your neck to the ‘holy shit!’ groove of “Cory Wong.”Luckily, for first time Vulfers, the group has made it extremely easy to track their progress and get up to speed. Not one of their six album releases exceeds 35 minutes. You could absorb their entire discography in less time than it would take to watch three episodes of CSI: Miami! Vulfpeck wants you. They and their fans want you to delve deep into their world. One of the joys of this band is plunging down the endless internet rabbit holes associated with their individual projects and guest artists. The Beautiful Game, having more guests than all their previous albums combined, allows for a wealth of discovery. At every turn the listener is given the opportunity to be in on the secret.The real treat of all of these incredibly talented artists putting their touch on a Vulfpeck release is hearing how mastermind, Jack Stratton incorporates them into his grand design. The more ingredients he has, the more he can exert his influence. This album more than any other, demonstrates his skill as producer, engineer, mixer, comedian, bandleader, and curator. Given so much material, he makes the pieces fit together in a cohesive and digestible way. His attention to detail and true reverence for his influences shine brightly on this release.To be honest, I am not as immediately in love with this record as I was their last. I don’t know if I ever will be. Thrill of the Arts, to me, is a quintessential ‘coming out’ album for Vulfpeck and will hold up for a long long time. The Beautiful Game is more challenging on an ideological level. Its a challenge to accept that your favorite funk-band-who-never-claimed-to-be-a-funk-band is making (really good) pop songs. Its challenging even though this type of music has endured as some of the best ever for the past 50 years. Pop is in this group’s DNA and they’d be the first to tell you that. This record challenges longtime fans to throw out their expectations of what Vulfpeck should be. They will always be themselves and as their family expands to include a wide array of influences, so too will their sound.Then & Now: Theo Katzman Discusses What It Means To Be VulfpeckMost of all The Beautiful Game challenges you to not be a passive listener, to not take any song at face value, whether its theirs or anyone else’s. They ‘came out’ with Thrill and now they want you to get to know the real Vulf. The Beautiful Game is at points quirky, poppy, patient, theatrical, funny, inspirational, and disgustingly funky. In this way its a real summary of everything that has defined and created the success of this group.So if you have any hangups about this latest addition to the Vulfpeck catalog, I invite you to listen deeper. Key in to the influences and the references. Locate Cory Wong in 7 of the 10 songs and marvel at his ability to add his unique flavor and still serve the Vulfpeck sound. I really can’t say enough about his playing on this album. Sink your teeth into the many layers and details that Jack and engineer, Tyler Duncan so deliberately crafted, like your grandmother slaving all day over her home made kougal. Get into it.Here’s my track by track breakdown of The Beautiful Game:The Sweet Science – My goodness. Listen to this song and tell me Jews don’t have soul. Whether taken as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the overt Jewishness of the group or as a sincere showcase of one of the oldest enduring Jewish art forms, this song speaks volumes. Clarinet can be one of the most hauntingly expressive wind instruments when played correctly. The characteristic scoops, dips, trills and grace notes are all used to great effect here to convey so much mourning. This is a total 180 from Vulfpeck’s other most notable clarinet display, the playful and bright outro to “Back Pocket.” It’s a twist right from the get-go. As a foreword, it effectively says, “Abandon your expectations. Vulfpeck will defy them.”Animal Spirits is the purest pop in the spirit of the Jackson 5. But instead of Little Michael we hear Theo Katzman singing lead and displaying impeccable range and precision. His vocals are never overly flashy and they serve the song perfectly. With typically catchy and winking lyrics, thick layers of keyboards and of course some great Joe Dart bass work, this song is pure fun. Also listen closely to the smooth and rhythmic outro lyrics by Christine Hucal and you’ll hear a clever nod to another Vulf favorite, “Back Pocket.”Dean Town – As much as this seeming Weather Report homage is a showcase for the whole band, its really the Joe Dart show the whole way through. The man is a sixteenth note MACHINE. You get the feeling he could play that complex, syncopated melody for a year straight and never drop a beat. As the song goes on more, members join in on the main riff, proving without doubt how talented and in-sync these musicians are. Among all the intricacy, the tune still grooves super hard thanks to Jack and Theo maintaining a rock solid pocket. This is a “vintage” Vulfpeck performance if there ever was one. This song, along with many others in the Vulf catalog, remind me that you can’t rightly separate one aspect of their presence from the other: listening to the recording alone, you might be fooled into thinking this was one drummer but, the video shows Jack and Theo playing separate parts of the drum kit/lamp. Another example of the attentive listening/watching this group demands.Conscious Club is Vulfpeck’s dance club anthem. Having spent considerable time in Berlin night clubs, I can tell you this track would be right at home. This feels akin to the kind of uplifting dance-pop of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” while splicing in the production sensibilities of Quincy Jones. This is especially apparent with the disco strings and Cory Wong’s guitar break which is reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something.” All the while Joe Dart’s warm, round bass tone fills out the sound and gives this song a ton of forward momentum. Jack’s directions to the Conscious Club are, of course, hilarious and will undoubtedly be spoken word-for-word by audiences across the nation during Vulf’s next tour. “Ich Bin Dart!” And in case you forgot just how funky he is, Cory’s outro is the perfect tag to let you know this is still Vulfpeck you’re listening to.El Chepe is a pallet cleanser. It’s no coincidence that this is the longest song on the album. You’ll need a lengthy breather before the second half kicks in. This is a good song for sitting back in your rocking chair and whittling a new toothpick. With so much happening production-wise in “Conscious Club”, it’s refreshing to hear the group lay into the kind of patient, minimalist groove at which they are so adept. This feels like a spiritual sequel to Rango I & II with the country inclination and masterful guitar (Adam Levy) and lap steel (Rich Hinman) work. I absolutely love the muted tone of the lap steel and how it plays against the dirtier, more biting guitar tone. This is also a great showcase for the honky tonk stylings of Woody Goss.1 for 1, DiMaggio – I am a huge baseball fan. YUGE. So when Vulfpeck makes a song about my favorite sport, I get excited. This track is like a mouthful of Big League Chew. I can already see the little league training montage set to this tune. The group’s sense of humor is on full display here with lyrics that are basically groups of baseball buzzwords set to a rhythm. I laughed out loud when Jack said “New York Yonkles” and “Bartoli Colon.” Antwuan Stanley gives a typically powerful performance though he doesn’t have as much room to stretch out here as in the past. I loved how the group dug into the dirty disco groove in the chorus.Sidenote: I’m very glad Woody Goss was mentioned by name in this song because, gosh-dang-it, the man can play. While Cory Wong has, deservedly, gotten a lot of focus as a guest player on this record, Woody remains the glue that holds the sound together. The definition of tasteful, he epitomizes the Vulfpeck philosophy of never doing more than you should to serve a particular song. When he does poke his head out into the spotlight, he creates some of the most memorable licks, phrases, and chords in the Vulf catalog. #woodyforpresidentVulfpeck’s Woody Goss Takes Us Birdwatching, Gives Wild Interview About Burritos And SpaceDaddy, He Got a Tesla – This song is perhaps the most obvious departure from the standard Vulfpeck sound. It’s most apparent in the drum performance. Usually their drum grooves are strikingly simple and crisp, letting the chordal and melodic instruments take up most of the sonic space. Here, though, the drum beat, played by Jamire Williams, is a constant stream of syncopated snare drum and washed out ride cymbal. This is by no means bad, and in fact this is a really cool, experimental, Herbie Hancock-esque song. It just doesn’t really blend with the sound of the rest of the record. I’d be curious to hear this played with a more traditional Vulf drum feel. Its always great to hear from the original Vulfpeck collaborator, Joey Dosik. His alto sax tone has become as big a part of the Vulfpeck signature sound as any full time member.Margery, My First Car – This song is downright hypnotic. In its instrumental form, this was a tune in which you could easily lose yourself. Now, with Christine Hucal’s vocals added, its like walking through a dream. Right from the intro you are transported. Her layered harmonies feel like being draped in velvet, which I would regularly do were it socially acceptable. Meanwhile Cory Wong once again subtly elevates this song with his tasteful and utterly funky guitar work, placed perfectly in the mix. I’ve also always loved the snare drum in this song: it sounds like Indiana Jones punching Nazis.Try something when listening to this one: Close your eyes. Imagine a beautiful person of your preferred gender. All of their features are up to you except this: their eyes are big and bold and deep green. Keep those eyes in your mind. This person is leading you by the hand through a corn maze at dusk, looking over their shoulder at you, giving you the most alluring bedroom eyes you’ve ever seen. What wouldn’t you do for that person?Aunt Leslie – This song feels like a number from a synth-heavy sequel to Fiddler on the Roof performed by a community theater group in Skokie, Illinois and directed by David Byrne. Antwuan really gets a chance to flex his muscles here. In more scaled down and contemplative settings he can perform some serious vocal gymnastics. This is an endearingly honest performance with just the right amount of quirkiness. With a vague and mysterious subject, this song still has the power to evoke a very specific feeling of bittersweet nostalgia. In this way it reminds me of another Vulfpeck classic, Wait for the Moment.Cory Wong – What a way to end an album! You will need a neck brace after this one. As the title implies, this song is all about Cory. After playing a mostly supportive role throughout Game, with occasional shining moments, its great to hear him take the lead and let loose. His Minneapolis and Prince-fueled roots show through here and take this song to incredibly funky places. I can easily imagine Prince’s sexual falsetto quivering over this stanky, Lettuce-reminiscent groove. The production on this track is seamless, totally blurring the lines between the live and studio aspects to supremely energetic effect. I did not want this tune to end. Yet another hallmark of the Vulfpeck catalog is leaving the listener wanting more. I can’t wait to lose my damn mind when I hear this performed live.For advanced listeners: Think of this record as a conversation with Thrill of the Arts. Either track by track or as a whole, there are many parallels, perpendiculars, acute and obtuse angles, mirror images and polar opposites on these two albums. Whether this was by design or purely coincidence (and with Jack Stratton at the helm, its almost never a coincidence) this pairing works incredibly well.Agree? Disagree? Hear something I didn’t? Let me know!last_img

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