Vulfpeck’s music is, above all, joyful. You would have to have a heart of iron to somehow avoid the ecstasy and energy present on their new album “Mr. Finish Line.” On the record they collaborate with the grooviest musicians and channel their own quirky blend of funk, jazz and soul music into every track. It’s like Vulfpeck sees the 70s through a filter where only the most carefree parts shine through. Through the band’s incessant groove, the listener is transported to a discotheque where the party never ends.
The sunny aura that surrounds Vulpeck’s songs makes for some interesting moments. Just take some lyrics for one of the album’s songs, “Business Casual:”
“Love is like a big ski mountain
You hike all the way up and you fly back down
Everyone’s talking about flying through the mountain
I just want to talk about hiking all the way up”
The song’s playful silliness is so unmasked it becomes endearing. As the lyrics reference everything from Steve Jobs to being a CPA, I can’t help but jump into the song’s exhilarating feeling. The uplifting chord changes and the fun, singalong chorus helps to make me feel like a kid again – it’s a piece of that hopeful star-eyed wonder we leave behind when we become adults. It seems like Vulfpeck has found a way to tap into this wonder, and now are harbingers of that feeling to the masses.
When I imagine Vulpeck making music one of two things pops into my head. One is an excessive and indulgent afternoon in Los Angeles sometime in the 70s, spent sailing along coastal highways with a gypsy crew of friends. The evening is spent partying at the Troubadour. Another vision finds a group of high school kids in the Midwest locked in their parent’s basement, somehow finding the groove among stacks of old funk vinyls.
“Tee Time” is a showstopping example of Vulpeck’s insatiable energy. The track takes off and refuses to stop, feeling like the beginning to a soundtrack for car racing game you’d find in an arcade in the 80s. Soon the track moves into a gospel rhythm backed by a throbbing backbeat. Handclaps and snaps appear behind it. By the end I feel like I’m listening to a mix between Michael McDonald’s electric piano riffs and Vulpeck’s own brand of funky fantasy music.
The title track plays with the same sort of silliness that “Business Casual” does:
Cut out the coco oil then you
A-Bring it to a boil then you
Cocoon it in the soil
Then you fire roast it
Freeze and toast it
Open up and shine”
Sometimes Vulpeck could use a little more contrast in the makeup of their songs. The tracks tend to run together with similar chord changes and hooks, and eventually their style starts to feel a little stale. The band gets trapped in their own sound when it would benefit them to explore the intricacies of the era that inspires them a bit deeper.
All in all, “Mr. Finish Line” is notable because it captures a period of music as it would exist in our dreams. Through Vulfpeck we get to experience the rhythm sections of the past with childhood wonder and hope – even their sad songs, like “Running Away,” seem to sidestep despair in the midst of an AM radio groove. This is joyful music in an age when joy sometimes seems very far away.