The record industry ’60s and early ’70s worked much differently than it does today. Bands were judged more for the albums they produced than their singles. Record deals were developmentally focused – there was an expectation that the first album might not be a success, but signing a band was a long term investment. Bands were going into professional studios for the first time and record companies were operating with the understanding that bands had to learn how the studio worked and it might take some time for them to find their ‘sound’. Payoff on investment wasn’t instant.
For example, Rush (a band that I will likely reference ad-nauseam in this blog) signed a four-record deal. Their first three albums were massive flops. By the fourth, however, the band was more confident in who they were and what they were doing. The result was 2112, which is widely considered one of the finest examples of 70s progressive rock. In today’s single-based marketplace the band would have never gotten the chance to make 2112, and even if they had there wasn’t much in the way of marketable tracks on the album.
Vulfpeck’s Thrill of the Arts is out of step with what most bands are putting forward right now. The album sounds like a pastiche of ’80s electro-funk, R&B, soul and more modern pop techniques. In short, no studio in their right mind in the current market is likely to pay these guys to make this album. Recognizing that difficulty, Vulfpeck took an interesting approach. They fronted 10,000 of their own dollars to go into the studio and make the album, releasing it themselves on Bandcamp, a website which allows artists to sell high-quality digital copies of their music. The group received multiple requests on Bandcamp for physical copies of the album. The band decided to use Kickstarter to raise the necessary cash to print the album, and over 1,500 fans responded by collectively raising over $55,000 to fund the effort.
That leaves a very simple question: Was the album worth the time, money and effort? My answer is an emphatic yes. Though, admittedly, not everyone will feel as strongly as I do.
The album doesn’t pull any punches or hide what it is about – right from the opening track “Welcome to Vulf Records” the listener is acquainted with what they have gotten themselves into. On my first listen I started smiling almost instantly, started bobbing my head, and quickly realized the guy in the cube next to me at work was judging my life decisions. I couldn’t help myself though – the driving piano, funky bass, and plucky guitar had me ready to go. Then Vulfpeck slowed it all down and added some tasty saxophone runs. I was ready for the trip this album was about to take me on.
The ’70s funk-pop sounds continue on audience-participation candidate “Back Pocket” and the hilarious lyrics accompanying the bass-led groove of “Funky Duck”. The next standout comes on “Game Winner,” a slow jam that slots in as track five. The verses harken back to “Lean on Me” or other similarly soulful, piano-driven tracks.
After a brief instrumental interlude (“Walkies”), the near-perfect “Christmas in LA” kicks into full gear. Here, Vulfpeck is doing their best Jackson 5 impression, and it works really well. Worth noting: This entire album, due to the cost constraints, was recorded live in studio, and “Christmas in LA” is where the approach works as a benefit as opposed to a hindrance. The whole group is clearly having a blast doing what they are doing, and I think that fun comes across in the way the music is played. When musicians are having a great time playing, I find myself more likely to have a great time listening.
“Conscious Club” is my favorite track on the album, and a true jam session between all the members. Piano, a Wurlitzer, a Hohner Pianet, and hand percussion all get their turn to shine. The last “verse” features the funkiest little quarter note bouncing around and making full use of the stereo audio. I cannot recommend enough listening to this one with a good pair of headphones (I mean, I did, on repeat…for nearly an hour).
“Smile Meditation”, the last track on the album, sounds like something off of a GRP jazz album from the 1980s. Some will make the accusation that it sounds like something playing in the men’s clothing section at a JCPenney in a failing mall – and while I can see the comparison, I think it’s better than that. This is something my Dad would put on a playlist with David Sanborn, Lee Ritenour, and Pat Matheny. It’s not everyone’s style, but I dig it.
Had I heard this album before I made my top 10 album list for 2015, this one would have been in hot competition for a slot. I think Vulfpeck is far from done, as they have a rigorous summer tour ahead, including a visit to Bonnaroo in June. Vulfpeck is clearly on the uptick as a band, and while I doubt they will ever find anything beyond a niche following, that doesn’t take anything away from the musical and compositional skill on display throughout the album. The only thing lacking is that there isn’t enough memorable content here – I don’t mean that in a radio-single sort of way, but the way that you can remember themes and elements from the whole album. Tracks 2-4 get a little jumbly for me and are all just OK tracks at best. However, it is so well played, I can’t punish it too harshly.