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Vulfpeck makes a shaky return, light on funk

(Vulfpeck/ Facebook)

Funk-revivalists Vulfpeck have blown up as indie darlings in the last few years, soaring off a small collection of EPs and singles “1612” and “Wait for the Moment.” Their signature wobbly bass and incredibly cute, feel-good songs (such as the 5th grade romance of “Back Pocket,” baseball-metaphor love story “Game Winner,” and the escapades of “Funky Duck”) make it impossible not to crack a smile while nodding your head to the bass.

Guitar and keyboardist Jack Stratton created a band envisioned after 60s funk and Motown, channeling the silly funk sound before Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic. Four University of Michigan alumnus came together to form the band, and only half a decade later have come to work with the session musician David T. Walker (Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” and The Jackson 5’s “ABC”), Ann Street Soul’s Antwaun Stanley (“Wait for the Moment”), and gospel singer Charles Jones all return, but can’t save “Mr Finish Line” as Vulfpeck continues to wrestle with the band’s next step.

The most jarring change of “Mr Finish Line” is the complete omission of any funk harmonies, anything really funk is half its running time. While last year’s “The Beautiful Game” felt more subtle, perhaps more mature, it still remained firmly entrenched in the band’s sound. Most songs here demand a close listen to even hear Joe Dart, who’s now been relegated to back, playing walking-bass.

Vulfpeck usually bolts past the heavy bass harmonies of funk and gives Dart center stage, crafting every melody after the four-string. Now, the flirtation with gospel and R&B features has created a gospel and R&B album. That would be perfectly fine, but the album constantly stumbles over itself in what it wants to achieve—never fully committing to its new sound, nor creating a cohesive listen.  

Antwaun Stanley reunites with the group for the opener “Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together.” Unlike the explosive, Broadway introduction to 2015’s “Thrill of the Arts,” the album begins with a much more restrained, smooth and slow grove. Stanley’s voice commands the hook above touches of light vocal harmonies. While it’s a great song, its skeletal minimalism and lack of any intro hurt the band’s usual flashy presentation, feeling dead on arrival.

“Back Pocket” singer Christine Hucal returns for the eponymous “Mr. Finish Line,” where Stratton mimics the usual bass, plucking on his guitar instead to great success in contrast to most of the album which suffers from muted harmonies. The song manages to reconnect with the familiar Vulfpeck idiosyncrasies: a silly ballad of charming insignificance, and even features its own funky keyboard outro.

Vulfpeck’s non-instrumentals work best when they’re these small, simple stories. “Running Away” utilizes the group’s funk as a powerful backing to Joey Dosik’s singing, but the serious romantic rumination feels out of place. It’s not that Vulfpeck isn’t allowed to make serious songs, it’s the bouncing between genres and severity of subject matter that make the track feel tonally dissonant.

While it might be easy to say, it really is true that the best parts of “Mr Finish Line” are when Vulfpeck step away from trying something new and slip back into their original sound. Famous funk bassist and Pariliament-Funkadelic member Bootsy Collins joins the group for closer “Captain Hook.” He and senselessly strained Mushy Kay bounce back as they rhyme their nonsense story.

Prince drummer Michael Bland joins the group on the methodically paced swing of “Hero Town.” And “Tee Time” stands as the highlight of the album, easily passable as a track from an early EP. It’s Vulfpeck doing their over-the-top funk instrumentals again, the speed of which only matches their early work.

Woody Goss plays an absolutely mad ragtime on his keyboard, which blends perfectly with Dart on bass. The song is comprised of the two playing off each other. The keyboard is amped in such a way as to sound bass heavy and joins the bass, panning from ear to ear, creating a surreal but never oppressive, jazzy funk assault.

While “Mr Finish Line” might be a shaky venture, it can still be appreciated for its accessibility. The familiar vocal features are like old friends visiting for Vulfpeck fans, who will have no problem enjoying their talents. Any die-hard fans clamoring for bass riffs will eat up “Tee Time.”

Vulfpeck stepping away from their eccentric sound may invite all new fans. It’s not perfect, and some songs are a bit shallow, but it’s a track list with wide appeal. It’ll be interesting to see where the four Michigan kids take their band next, whether they’re ready to clean their hands of funk or just haven’t found a way to connect the two sounds yet. With their talent it’s clear they’re not finished yet.

 

Matthew Joseph can be reached at mejoseph@umass.edu.

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