The Beautiful Game
Vulf Records • October 17th, 2016
By: Spencer LaChance
*Out of 5
The Beautiful Game is the second studio album from contemporary funk band, Vulfpeck, composed of Jack Stratton (keyboards, drums, guitar), Theo Katzman (guitar, drums), Woody Goss (keyboards), and Joe Dart (bass). The four members attended University of Michigan’s music school together and have put out a new release every year since their formation in 2011. Last year’s album, Thrill of the Arts reached number 16 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart and garnered the band enough buzz to be booked on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last November. The Beautiful Game continues this forward momentum for the band.
The album starts off easy with “The Sweet Science”, a smooth clarinet solo track provided by Michael Winograd. He is one of the many guests that appear on The Beautiful Game which has the longest feature list of any Vulfpeck release thus far. Another, prominent guest musician is Cory Wong who plays guitar on seven of the album’s ten songs. For this reason, the band called him “this albums’ Billy Preston”. Next is “Animal Spirits,” which is driven by a commanding piano groove, similar to the one found on last year’s “Christmas in L.A.,” and features vocals from Theo Katzman and Christine Hucal, the same duo that sang on last year’s “Back Pocket”. The infectious melodies, electrifying vocals, and self-referential “heartfelt lyrics” culminate in a song that exemplifies Vulfpeck’s hit-making prowess.
“Dean Town” puts Joe Dart in the spotlight. He controls the jam with his funk-driven bassline that gets more complex as the song progresses. At the same time, Goss’ keys and Cory Wong’s guitar gradually join in until all three are jamming together at the end of the song. Vulfpeck often uploads videos of their recording sessions on YouTube, and they uploaded the video for “Dean Town” shortly before The Beautiful Game was released. Seeing the band record this song while sitting in a circle in what looks like someone’s basement is a fitting introduction to the album. The instrumental for the next track, “Conscious Club” was released on Thrill of the Arts but is reborn here with lyrics about a “Conscious Club” where Vulfpeck is the in-house band. This song was the first weak point in the album. I couldn’t get past the chipmunk and spoken word vocals dispersed throughout the track which, along with the simple lyrics, detract from the excellent music that is happening underneath – I would much rather choose to listen to the instrumental from Thrill of the Arts over this version.
“El Chepe” is an adventure, taking the listener aboard the Mexican rail line from which its name originated. It was an intriguing detour for the album, showcasing the band’s versatility, it’s amazing how well they captured the “wild west” sound. Antwaun Stanley, whose vocals are featured on 2014’s “1612” is brought back for the slower ballad, “Aunt Leslie,” and the light, amusing “1 for 1, DiMaggio”. The latter sounds like it comes straight out of a children’s show and the spoken call-and-answer dialogue in the middle of the song is a bit distracting and unnecessary. Like “Conscious Club”, I feel that this song would’ve been better if all of the vocals were sung. Otherwise, “1 for 1” is another fun, albeit less memorable song on the tracklist. Next is “Daddy, He Got a Tesla”, a raw, unadulterated funk banger with a stunning appearance by Joey Dosik on alto sax. Jamire Williams’s drum beat and Joe Dart’s bassline join forces to make it the instrumental highlight of the album.
After a high point comes a low point, “Margery, My First Car”. Here, Christine Hucal sounds like she’s trying to mimic Beach House’s Victoria Legrand, which would be fine if the song wasn’t so unlistenable. I found it very difficult to wrap my head around Hucal’s vocal melodies. Vulfpeck’s instrumental is solid but it could not make up for the vocal disaster happening around it. The album quickly regains itself and wraps up nicely with its last two songs: the aforementioned “Aunt Leslie”, complete with a fiery trombone solo provided by Bethanni Grecynski and “Cory Wong”, named after this album’s frequently featured guitarist. The final song begins a little blandly, but switches from a studio recording to a live one halfway through. With the transition comes a new intensity fueled by the audience’s rhythmic clapping. Vulfpeck ends The Beautiful Game by showing that they continue to push the boundaries of song composition.
With every game, there are winners and losers, and The Beautiful Game is no exception. It is a little worrying that this album has more losers than usual for a Vulfpeck release. I found myself disliking a Vulfpeck song for the first time; the once pristine Vulfpeck collection now has a small crack in it. Despite this, I cannot deny that The Beautiful Game is a great addition to the band’s discography. 4/5.