A Review of Vulfpeck’s Hill Climber

Drake Martin

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Vulfpeck’s 4th full-length studio album Hill Climber was released on December 7th of 2018.  Unlike previous albums, it chooses to not feature a wide array of musical guests, and instead focuses on multi-instrumentalist Theo Katzman.  

The album is split not just by the increasingly disappearing side B line, but also by the type of song.  The first 5 tracks are vocal based “pop tunes” (the first 4 of which all feature Theo Katzman on vocals), and the last 5 are instrumental (which many Vulf fans recognize as their “original style”).  

Half of the Way (feat. Theo Katzman)

This track was composed by Larry Goldings and Ryan Lerman, who wrote track two of their previous album: Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh.  Other guests are Joey Dosik on saxophone and Cory Wong on baritone guitar. For people who do not know much about Vulfpeck and are coming from a pop background, this song is a great introduction to their sound.

The track opens with an extremely punchy bass and baritone guitar tone which is counter pointed by Ryan Lerman’s almost rhode’s sounding guitar.  After 4 bars, we’re taken into a smooth vocal track with even punchier piano and a limited drum beat. The track builds into the chorus, which is where I become less interested in the song.  Personally, the vocals sound extremely over produced.

While the verse vocals still sound pop-y, the over all “clean-ness” of the chorus takes it to a much more over produces sound that I am not used to with Vulfpeck. After the second chorus we’re taken into the bridge, where Joey Dosik’s saxophone shines. In the second half of the bridge we’re introduced to an overdubbed synthesized recorded presumably by Jack Stratton.  While may opinion of it at first was very harsh, I have grown to like it after around two months of listening.

Then, we enter the breakdown, which was quite obviously added in post-production by muting certain instruments.  When we go back to the intro/verse groove, I am reminded of how well this song is mixed. The tone of the instruments playing the harsher hits are mixed together perfectly.  Between Cory’s baritone guitar, Golding’s piano, and Joey’s sax, a tone similar to a trumpet can be heard. All of this is lead by Theo’s improvised vocals.

While the chorus vocals may be overproduced for my tastes, the goods significantly outweigh the negatives of this track.  While it certainly isn’t one of my favorite vocal-based Vulfpeck tunes, it holds itself strong as an opener and a segue into the next song…

Darwin Derby (feat. Theo Katzman & Antwaun Stanley)

Composed by Jack Stratton, this song is the essence of the Vulfpeck sound.  With lead vocals and talk box recorded by Theo Katzman and improvisation by Antwaun Stanley, this song is the first to feature all 7 touring members of Vulfpeck on a single track.  

We’re introduced to the song with a two part guitar riff played by Katzman and Wong.  The full band enters, and we’re introduced to the main groove. The bass line of this song, which is inspired by the 80’s classic “Walk the Dinosaur”, features many identifying features.  It is constantly anticipating the downbeat which gives the song a feel of a non-stop groove.

The vocal track is highly layered, with an upper-octave track barely audible.  The lyrics are inspired by the theme of evolutionary traits that were theorized by Charles Darwin.  It even features the line “Gotta kick the drum like the Pretty Purdie, and the track will burn”, which is a reference to Bernard Purdie, a legendary session drummer who performed with Vulfpeck during their run in Brooklyn in 2016.  

When the B section we are introduced to Antwaun’s vocals, as well as Theo’s talk box tracks.  While they may not be lyrically complex, the blend between analog and digital vocals here is near perfection.  I didn’t realize that Antwaun was singing during these sections until watching the video.

After another verse the lyrics switch to more evolutionary-based rhymes.  Then we are taken into the breakdown. For many this section can be confusing and too separate from the rest of the song.  But for well-versed Vulfpeck fans it is what to be expected. Jack Stratton features here his ability to maintain a quirky monologue that grooves along with the rhythm section.  The line “Then why does the whale have feet?” is homage to the finding of fossils that support the hypothesis that whales once had small feet attached to their bodies.

After another verse and chorus we’re taken to Antwaun’s solo.  From watching the video I have speculated that when they were recording this session they had not written the main vocals yet, so Antwaun was going off of the instrumental track.  When he continues his improvisation after the verse reenters I can’t help but awe at how well his track goes with the verse hook.

This song is the culmination of all thing Vulfpeck.  Not only because of the fact that this is the only song to feature all 7 touring members of the Pack, but because it contains almost every element that separates Vulfpeck from others.  The quirkiness, the funkiness, and the humor of this track elevates it to not just on of the best on this album, but of their entire discography.

Lonely Town (feat. Theo Katzman)

After the funk-tastic taste of Darwin Derby we’re taken back into the singer-songwriter realm of Theo Katzman.  Wielding his acoustic guitar and microphone hanging from the ceiling, Theo lounges on a couch with a pattern that is oddly similar to the one on his shirt.

This song can best be described as a crossover between Katzman’s more traditional love songs, his live scat-singing performances, and the sound of a Beatles love song.  Featuring an extremely thumpy bass tone, perfectly played keys, and the minimalist drums that Jack Stratton has trademarked, this tune is one of the tightest vocal tunes that they’ve released.  

We open with a reference to the Billy Preston tune “Nothing From Nothing”.  After the first two verses we’re met with the first scat lick from Theo in the tune.  This carries us into the bridge where Woody Goss’ piano track really shines. He blends himself so well with Theo’s voice that I really wish I could hear the isolated recording.

The tune ends and we’re transitioned into the peaceful nature of “Love is a Beautiful Thing”.  This tune is one of the tightest pop songs that vulfpeck has ever produced. It isn’t an outstanding track, but it doesn’t need it be.  It successfully cools the listener down for the next track.

Love is a Beautiful Thing (feat. Theo Katzman & Monica Martin)

I can’t possibly rave enough about this song.  Between the live drum machine operated by Jack Stratton (who is also playing snare and hi-tom), the spine chilling baritone guitar played by Cory Wong, incredibly unique bass tone, and the tear-jerking sound of Woody’s keys and Joey’s saxophone mixed together creates the perfect instrumental track for this song.  

The vocals are perfect too.  When Monica Martin enters in the second chorus you almost can’t tell that it’s not Theo.  The harmonies in the third verse are perfect, and when they go back into unison on the “but it was not me, you see” I can’t help but be amazed by their talents.  I’m not sure if it’s their own talent or the amazing mix by Jack Stratton (which probably doesn’t hurt), but this is certainly my favorite track of the album.

For Survival (feat. Mike Viola)

This is my least favorite track of the album.  That doesn’t mean there are no redeemable qualities though.  Viola’s vocals are growing on me more every time I listen to this song, the bridge is amazing, and Cory Wong’s solo at the end of the tune is fantastic.  This track just doesn’t do it for me. Something about the vocals in this tune are too unstable for my personal taste. I can see why some people love this song, but it’s not for me.  

Soft Parade

And now we get into the big boys of the album: the instrumental side.

This is another tune I can’t rave enough about.  Theo’s amazing drumming, Joe’s simplistic but really interesting bass line, Woody’s God-tier wurlitzer playing, and Jack’s extremely confident right hand all create an amazing feel.  

I have no complaints about this song.  The length is perfect, the way it sets up the rest of the album is inspiring, and it is something I would expect to hear out of the 2012 era Vulfpeck.

 

Lost My Treble Long Ago

Funky bass playing.  We really missed this in the previous album Mr. Finish Line.  Sure, there were lots of solos and good grooves, but there was nothing that screamed “JOE DART”.  Lost My Treble not only makes up for this, but well exceeds what I was expecting on this album.

With a bass line inspired by Joe Dart’s Beastly Solos, the tune is carried by an incredibly difficult, groovy, and head-bobbing groove played on a Fender Jazz Bass. 

Cory Wong’s rhythm guitar provides perfect support in the A and B sections, and Joey Dosik’s sax line is almost too good to be true.  When I first listened to this song before the video was out, I legitimately thought it wasn’t Joey Dosik. The drum set and percussion give a perfect groove, and Woody’s keys are too jazzy to handle.  

My only complaint with this song is that it does get to feel a little boring towards the half way mark. But other than that, it is exactly what I want from a Joe Dart featuring song.  

Disco Ulysses (Instrumental)

Oh. My. God.  This song has everything.  It’s a unique thing for Vulfpeck, having a very west coast, Daft Punk vibe, but they more than exceeded with this track.

Rhythm guitars by Theo and Cory add a level of guitar funk that hasn’t been present in previous tunes.  Joe Dart’s insane bass line in the B section carries the tune with the style of Bernard Edward’s from Chic. Woody’s keys are voiced incredibly to perfect support the guitars.  I was shocked when I first heard this song. I am very excited to hear the vocalized version of this song.

The Cup Stacker

I don’t have much to say about this song.  It’s groovy, and a good song, but this song just doesn’t live up to how epic the title of the song is.  When I was speculating about the album I was extremely excited for this song, but can’t help to be disappointed when I listen to it.  Great bass solo though.

It Gets Funkier IV (feat. Louis Cole)

This is the fourth version of the Vulfpeck classic “It Gets Funkier” which appeared as the second track on their first EP, Mit Peck.  While this version may not be my favorite, it is definitely an improvement over the last “It Gets Funkier III”, from 2013.  This new version is fast, with Joe Dart playing a bass tuned down to Eb, giving it a lower and thumpier sound. Louis Cole plays a complicated beat that I can’t transcribe for the life of me, and Jack Stratton slaps the keys to his MIDI Clavinet as if its a hot stove.  I also want to give credit to the new intro to the B section that Joey and Woody play. While I love the one of the previous versions, this new one is extremely funky adds a lot to the song.

After a crazy drum solo, Joe Dart comes in with one of my favorite solos of his.  Then, the song ends with Cory Wong’s laughter of innocence. This is my 2nd favorite of the 4 It Gets Funkiers.  It made a huge leap from the last version, and I feel this was a good addition to the catalog.

 

Hill Climber was definitely a successful album to me.  It took the problems with Mr. Finish Line and fixed them beyond I could have imagined.  Less musical guests, a higher focus on instrumental songs, and improvement of the album as a “vulf album” elevated this album to being on level with their 2016 release, The Beautiful Game.  I can’t wait to hear more from this band, and I am very eager to see them at Madison Square Garden this September.