People were outraged after Vulfpeck’s 2016 Lock’n performance. The band played a set on Thursday, the first day of the festival, to an eager and energetic crowd. That show went over well, as expected – there’s something about white people playing funk that unkempt Umphrey’s fans absolutely adore. Their Friday set, on the other hand, was received quite poorly, for one simple reason: they played (almost) the exact same set.
For those of you unfamiliar with jam band culture, allow me to enlighten you. “Heady” folks and festival-goers value improvisation and uniqueness above all else; duplicating set lists is essentially impermissible. Take Phish, the gold standard in this category – over the course of 31 years and 1,600+ shows, they’ve never played the same set twice. Fans of the band (myself included) would much rather see the group botch complicated sections or bust out boring new material than repeat even one song over the course of a three night run.
Of course, I don’t think Vulfpeck is in the wrong here. Rather, I think the crowds are. People really don’t seem to understand that Vulfpeck is not a jam band. Virtuosity and on-stage hijinks aside, anyone who’s listened to an album of theirs can tell you the outfit takes great pride in their stringent arranging, a feature which directly contradicts the jam ethos. What the Lock’n fiasco really says about Vulfpeck is that they’re versatile. They can appeal to hippies, music school students, old heads, and many more. Yet, ironically, that versatility doesn’t always come through in their music.
The Beautiful Game opens with a solo clarinet piece. While it’s nice to see they’ve added a new sound to their arsenal, the track itself doesn’t feel particularly interesting, and at just under 2 minutes, it’s long enough to lose my attention. Thankfully, the intro dissolves into an upbeat pop song (starting to look like another track list?) which rescues the energy. “Animals Spirits” takes the dormant ABBA-influences that have always found their way into Vulfpeck songs and fully fleshes them out. The result is a saccharine little thing with a fantastic, rollicking piano hook. These pop elements permeate the rest of the record, too.
What has always grounded Vulfpeck, and what keeps them from fading into obscurity as a niche instrumental pop band, is their grit and production. This is thanks to two members in particular: Joe Dart and Jack Stratton. The former contributes fiery, visceral bass lines, while the latter produces with remarkable taste. This combination is exactly what made their debut single, “Beastly,” so fantastic, and it’s also what continually attracts new listeners. You can hear this chemistry on “Dean Town,” a Weather report (parody? homage?) which inspires awe despite being a simple groove, melody, and bridge. Stratton mixes and tweaks with expertise; the bass notes pop off the deadened snare just as they might in an old Muscle Shoals track. Of course, this is exactly what they’re aiming for.
Another strategy, which seems to draw more attention to the band, is the rampant guest appearances. They adopted this tactic as they entered the realm of LP with their 2015 release Thrill of the Arts, a move which appears directed at reaching a wider audience – after all, their two most popular tracks from their earlier discography were “1612” and “Wait for the Moment,” both collaborations with the inimitable Antwaun Stanley. Speaking of which, Stanley fronts one of the best songs on The Beautiful Game, “1 for 1, DiMaggio.” This succinct, triumphant cut features some breezy call-and-response and a furiously funky chorus, while also showcasing Vulfpeck’s comic side. The group has always had a knack for making their listeners burst into laughter, and this record is no different.
This record is “no different” in a lot of ways, actually. Vulfpeck is still utilizing their guests expertly, still abiding by their accessible, groovy instrumentation, and unfortunately, they’re still living in the shadows of the musical giants they’re trying to emulate. I already mentioned ABBA, whose unabashedly bubblegum aesthetic is present in spades on The Beautiful Game. “Cory Wong” is kinda like “Kiss” meets “Uptown Funk…” I’m still not sure where I stand on that one. When I listen to Vulfpeck, there’s always the question of, “Shouldn’t I just be listening to a Clarence Carter record right now?” The band’s love for old school funk and soul has always been a part of their music, but this far into their career, it’s starting to feel like a crutch.
So, the quartet has dug themselves into a bit of a hole. Their very best songs are those that gesture to their influences, often in major ways. What happens when they break this mold and try to play around with form and content? “Daddy, He Got a Tesla” is a busy groove with a few heavily-effected vocal lines which, besides a modest nod to Can’s “Halleluwah,” is mostly idiosyncratic. The song breaks the mold, but lacks the melodic substance that characterizes the rest of the album, and ends up sticking out. “El Chepe,” too, sounds better in theory than execution. It’s a 5 minute (dare I say?) “jam” that sees the band members trading licks with a pedal steel. While it’s a cool concept, it gets stale very quickly, and I find myself wishing they’d stick to their pithy side.
After 5 years, with four EPs and two full-lengths under their belt, it’s starting to seem like Vulfpeck is making the same record over and over. This newest batch of songs does little to distinguish itself from the rest of their discography. I’m not saying it’s a bad record; not in the slightest. A solid portion of The Beautiful Game is expertly arranged, catchy, and explosive. Still, you’d think such a talented bunch of musicians, who have a fantastic sense of industry and sound, might have something more distinct to say.
Written by Preston Fulks