Vulfpeck Brings the Funk and more with “Hill Climber”
As the world we occupy manages to keep deteriorating into morbidity, music seems to be following the same trend, growing more grim and serious. However, in this world of grime on Dec. 7, the Michigan funk quartet Vulfpeck broke through the darkness with their highly anticipated eighth studio release, “Hill Climber”. The album features the group’s original four members Jack Stratton, Theo Katzman, Joe Dart, and Woody Goss along with brilliant regulars in Joey Dosik, Cory Wong and Antwaun Stanley. The band also continues its newfound tradition of featuring other talents like Louis Cole, Monica Martin, and Mike Viola to present some modern minimalist funk. With 10 tracks split into five vocally and lyrically encapsulating tracks working alongside five enthralling instrumental tracks, the album builds on everything they’ve garnered acclaimed for while exploring untraversed terrains. The band’s frontman, Stratton explained the splitting into two halves is for listeners “to choose your level of engagement.” Although this decision was made with a focus on the vinyl, it still works beautifully for digital listeners.
The first five tracks are where Katzman, the band’s in-house drummer and sometimes guitarist, gets to showcase his vocal range. He also mixed the vocals for the entire album giving him complete control over the lyrical sections. The first track “Half of the Way” is an almost jazz-rock plea from a lover. The upbeat rhythms, drum beats from Stratton, and guitar riffs from Wong undercut the imploring lyrics. In spite of arguably being the album’s least memorable track, written by Lerman and Goldings, “Half of the Way” gets the ball rolling pretty well.
Subsequently, Vulfpeck slaps you in the face with pure unadulterated fun in “Darwin Derby.” It brings the classic don’t take yourself (or anything for that matter) too seriously vibe that Vulfpeck has developed over the years. With zany lyrics alluding to Darwin’s theory of evolution and references to Bernard Purdie, accompanied by the repetitive funky dual guitar from Wong and Katzman, the song is meant to make everybody groove. Additionally, Joe Dart’s forever astounding Fender bass with piano embellishments from Joey Dosik and Woody Goss all amalgamate into pure groovy music. These instrumentals coupled with vocals from Katzman and Stanley, both straining their pipes to hit the highest notes imaginable, simultaneously blow every listener’s mind. Additionally, Jack Stratton adds his monotone lecturer voice to illuminate by providing facts about nature like, “Of all the creatures in the sea, my favorite is the bass it climbs up all the rocks and trees and slides down on its hands and knees but why does the shark have teeth? The shark has teeth to eat, I see and why does the whale have feet? Well it- I don’t know”, “Darwin Derby”’s overwhelming absurdity reminds avid listeners of tracks like “Captain Hook”, “Animal Spirits” and “Conscious Club” and introduces new listeners to all the fun weirdness the band brings. The music video as well with dancing CGI tigers, pandas, snakes, sharks, flamingoes, octopi, and unicorns is a recommended watch.
“Of all the creatures in the sea, my favorite is the bass it climbs up all the rocks and trees and slides down on its hands and knees but why does the shark have teeth? The shark has teeth to eat, I see and why does the whale have feet? Well it- I don’t know” – Jack Stratton
Third in line, “Lonely Town” has Katzman front and center bringing the Beatles back. With an acoustic guitar in hand and lamentations about loneliness ready, Katzman sings his heart out while Goss absolutely wrecks on keys with playful harmonies that serve as a catharsis of the lyrical loneliness. Stratton’s repetitive drum beat and Dart taking on the upright bass (actually just his Fender held upright) add some heft to the song. This track offers some of the most tactfully written lyrics that revolve around the diatribes of the singer and the mayor of said “Lonely Town”. Consequently, when it’s all said and done “Lonely Town” with its catchy tune and hook is set to probably be the most listened-to song on the album.
Following this is the penultimate track with vocals and the last one featuring Katzman’s voice, “Love is a Beautiful Thing”. Monica Martin accompanies Katzman on vocals for this ballad. “Love is a Beautiful Thing” is actually a revised rendition of a song with the same title featured on Katzman’s solo album, “Heartbreak Hits”. However, this time with Martin’s dreamy voice, Dosik’s smoothest alto sax, and Goss dual wielding the celeste and Wurlitzer adds a sense of poignancy to the track that lingers. The lyrics grapple with the denial of seeing one’s past lover move on and be happy in a relationship with someone else. This song is bound to make anyone who has been in a failed relationship tear up.
The final track with vocals, “For Survival” adds a little Southern charm to the album with Mike Viola taking over on vocals. The track slowly grows on you and then delves into more of the Vulf idiosyncrasies with requests of “Wrap me in cellophane”, “Fill me with purple drink” and more, all “For Survival”. This adds a variety to the album and Viola’s isolated vocal bridges truly “shine”.
Moving into the instrumental section, Vulfpeck goes back to their roots with just the core group by themselves, recording in a small room. This starts off with the shortest but one of my personal favorites, “Soft Parade”. The song is a throwback to the low-volume funk that the band garnered its initial acclaim for. The track almost feels like the band is just performing live and showcases their chemistry at its finest. Katzman’s drums, Dart’s Fender bass, and the most powerful Wurlitzer performances from Stratton and Goss make for an indelible track.
Next up is the Joe Dart show in “Lost My Treble Long Ago”. Just like all Vulfpeck album, this is the track set aside for one of the best bassists in the world to show off his skills. With every beat, one can only wonder how the man can move his fingers like that. Dosik’s sax, Stratton’s drums, Wong’s guitar, and Goss’ piano all bolster Dart’s bassline. Katzman also isn’t slouching on the track as he takes over the congas and even gets a solo to add to Dart’s headbanging bassline.
As the album ramps up we reach the best track on it, “Disco Ulysses”. The song is so funky it’ll even make the citizens of the town from Footloose tap their feet. Every single member of the band gets to showcase their abilities. Cory Wong also boasts a great solo showing off some of the funkiest guitar play. Goss also shines on keys while Dart fills in the gaps with some booty shaking, heart thumping bass play, and Katzman also holds his own on drums throughout. The song simply brings the funk. Moreover, the song is just the instrumental version of a future rendition featuring some possibly outlandish vocals that fans can’t wait for.
Then comes the ninth track, “The Cup Stacker”. It’s a tight track that’ll make head bobs with its hefty bassline. We also revisit the definitive keys duo with Stratton and Goss working together marvelously. The song lets Wong and Dart take solos again and, just like “Soft Parade,” showcases the band’s chemistry and ability to create great music while simply jamming with each other.
The final track is the highly anticipated fourth iteration in Vulf’s “It Gets Funkier” series. “It Gets Funkier IV” blows your socks off with the most rapid mind-blowing drums from Louis Cole (check out his solo album “Time” which should be in the running for best album of the year) and the most ridiculous clavinet play from Stratton. The track is just jam-packed with the most powerful instrumentals, with all members playing essentially non-stop throughout the track. The only pauses come during Dosik’s piano fills as well as Cole and Dart’s solos. “It Gets Funkier IV” is a manifestation of exactly what “Hill Climber” presents: a new and improved Vulfpeck that is sticking to its roots and branching out all at once, while also consistently producing new music every year. Watch out for a lot more stuff to come from the band and stay tuned for their tour (or simply check out their spellbinding music videos) because the live shows are where all of the bizarre theatricals and absurdities crescendo into proof that funk is still alive.