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Vulfpeck struggles with identity on ‘Mr. Finish Line’

| Friday, November 17, 2017

Dominique DeMoe

Music, at its most basic, either has vocals or it doesn’t.

Bands fall into one of two categories. The Beatles have vocals, Brahms doesn’t; Lady Gaga has vocals, John Coltrane doesn’t; Kanye West has vocals, Hans Zimmer doesn’t. It’s simple and straightforward. It’s how music would be categorized if genres didn’t exist. Instead of zeros and ones, music in its binary form is instrumental or vocal.

It isn’t that easy, though. Musical acts, now more than ever, tiptoe the line between being instrumental or vocal. More and more often albums are becoming heterogeneous, cohesively mixing instrumental tracks with vocal tracks to make a finished product. The lines of music that for so long have been rigid and clear are becoming more blurred as different musical groups decide that being purely one type of act doesn’t satisfy them. Neo-funk band Vulfpeck is a perfect example of this.

The band, which originated at the University of Michigan, started their career with purely instrumental music and has since transitioned to a predominantly vocal sound. Their first four EPs — “Mit Peck,” “Vollmilch,” “My First Car” and “Fugue State” — share 24 songs between them, with only two containing vocals. The three albums they have released since then — “Thrill of the Arts,” “The Beautiful Game” and the recently released “Mr. Finish Line” — on the other hand, share 30 tracks between them with only 13 of them being purely instrumental. This transition occurred for a number of reasons.

The two most successful songs from their first four EPs were undoubtedly the two that contained vocals — “Wait for the Moment” from “My First Car” and “1612” from “Fugue State.” Their other music was undoubtedly respected and critically well regarded, but it just didn’t sell or garner attention like those two songs did. This trend of vocals resulting in success didn’t stop with those first two songs. The most successful songs from both of their first two full-length albums were vocal as well. “Back Pocket,” a piano-laden, high-pitched scream of a vocal song, was the most successful song on their first album, “Thrill of the Arts,” and “Animal Spirits,” a song that almost mimics “Back Pocket” but with different lyrics, was the most successful song on their second album, “The Beautiful Game.”

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Through their first two studio albums, Vulfpeck kept at least half of the tracks instrumental and made sure the sparse vocal tracks were high quality. It has become a bad thing, however, on their recently released third studio album, “Mr. Finish Line.”

The album contains three lackluster instrumental tracks accompanying seven vocal tracks. It’s an attempt to get more commercial success at the expense of artistic expression.

The three instrumental tracks — “Tee Time,” “Hero Town” and “Vulf Pack” — are not just low-ranking in the scheme of Vulfpeck’s previous work, but also are mere unsuccessful bastardizations of their more well-known past songs. If a listener has any sense of the band’s past work, the songs sound uninspired, repetitive and humdrum. When put into the context of Vulfpeck’s commercial goals with this album, however, their inclusion makes sense. On these three instrumental tracks, Vulfpeck takes some of their best work from their early albums and essentially copies it to showcase it to their newfound, more “commercial” fans. It’s a decision that I don’t particularly respect, but one that I understand.

Although the instrumental music of the album falls flat, the vocal music makes up for it slightly.

The quality of the vocal tracks is clearly superior, but it isn’t something that is present in all seven of the vocal songs. “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh” and “Mr. Finish Line” are easily the standouts. Instead of throwing in random, untested features as many of the tracks do, they use frequent collaborators Theo Katzman and Antwaun Stanley — two artists who have repeatedly shown they can compliment Vulfpeck’s unique, techno-funk sound. Stanley’s deep gospel voice mimics the constant bass riffs that permeate throughout his two features on the album, and Katzman’s higher, at times screechy, voice compliments the high-pitched falsettos that his co-features Christine Hucal and Bootsy Collins use. These songs and features standout in a thoroughly uninspired album.

All in all, Vulfpeck didn’t have much of a purpose in making this album. If anything it was an experiment to see how much more press and money they could get. But if the press and album-purchasers care anything about quality, the experiment will fail.

Artist: Vulfpeck

Album: “Mr. Finish Line”

Label: Vulf

Tracks: “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh,” “Mr. Finish Line”

If you like: Mayer Hawthorne, Leon Bridges, The Suffers

3 out of 5 Shamrocks

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