California-based funk musicians Vulfpeck released Mr. Finish Line in early November. The group has steadily released a full LP each year since 2011, and, in that time, their sound has developed from bass-driven minimal funk to a whole-hearted, melodic R&B and soul sound.
Mr. Finish Line is their first album dominated by tracks with vocal lines front and centre, moving their melodies to new places alongside the classic Vulfpeck bass engine.
The album starts off with “Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together,” which initially was released as a music video in September. The song feels light and airy, softer and slower than most of the rest of the album. Regular contributor Antwaun Stanley sings about the journey to find his flock through treetop struggles of heavy rains and winds, while the band maintains a delicate sounding, yet consistently soothing instrumental arrangement.
A small order of pancakes literally serves as the percussion instrument on this song, as it is listed as drummer Jack Straton’s instrument in the Bandcamp release and is seen in the music video. About mid-song, the group breaks for a rather timely whistle break-down, giving Stanley a break from singing the chorus. The bass also takes some freedom during this time, keeping the rhythm active through the whistling. Gentle notes on keys and subtle wah-wah effect from a pianet add the classic Vulfpeck nuance to an otherwise uncommonly slow-grooving tune.
The next track, “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh,” featuring vocalist Charles Jones, brings in the usual outgoing, playful Vulfpeck feel, without picking up the pace too much. Jones shares the melodic spotlight with Joey Dosik on alto saxophone, who keeps on with the soul sound through a short solo. Track three, the title track, picks up the pace. Gentle guitar playing keeps things soft while a steady hi-hat beat adds an underlying groove to the otherwise relaxed song. Christine Hucal sings on this one, quite suitably, as her softer, higher-pitched tone shares in the gentleness of the song.
We get a glimpse of what might be called classic Vulfpeck on “Tee Time.” The tempo picks up, the bass forges ahead full-steam, and the keys bop along to the quick tempo. The song feels closer to being a fragment than a fully composed idea, and it harkens back to the likes of 2014 LP, Fugue State, and earlier albums.
The rest of the album returns to the tempo and feel originally set by the first track. “Running Away” builds gently to near climax, but holds back and keeps the sounds gentle and tactful. “Hero Town” features some sounds that Vulfpeck fans will be quick to recognize, like the Farfisa keys with a wah-wah pedal twist and a saxophone melody, instead of a vocal line. “Business Casual” blends the classic Vulfpeck upbeat feeling with their seemingly newer style of writing, wherein vocalists carry the melody, and the notes from every instrument feel very deliberate.
The album closes out with a short ditty called “Captain Hook”, which sounds more like a narrative piece at first than a real song, but also features a lively bass solo.
Like always, Vulfpeck has written another album marked by lightweight funky fun, created through mindful and tactful instrumental parts being in the right place at the right time, with an especially soulful twist this time around. A couple of songs hold snippets of previous pieces, and a couple of others (like “Tee Time” and “Vulf Pack”) sound like they will evolve into full compositions over time, as they currently are not structured as full songs but rather a lick or a riff.