Requested by Lycosa
Despite having a big mainstream presence for close to two decades, and having massively influenced popular music ever since its inception, you’d be forgiven for thinking funk as a genre had entirely ceased to exist from the 90s onward. In reality music genres never die, just disappear into the underground; the biggest acts from the golden age like Cameo and Earth Wind & Fire continue to tour and influence new generations of bands, who continue to push the artistic boundaries of the genre or keep the classic sounds alive – one of which in particular being Vulfpeck, who were influenced by the live and unedited rhythm sections of the 70s and 80s and as such have been doing both things since they started, cross-pollinating funk with pop on their latest LP Hill Climber.
The first half of the album puts the focus on drummer Theo Katzman’s (reminiscent of Justin Timberlake) singing and sticks to a soul-influenced sound for most of it, the shamelessly retro Half of the Way going for a more Motown feel with big harmonies in the chorus and a heavy focus on the stabs of piano throughout, before changing things up with a disco bridge out of nowhere that keeps the song fresh and interesting. Darwin Derby is probably the funkiest moment on the first half of the album, continuing the disco theme with a memorable riff and an irresistibly catchy chorus – the only thing dragging the song down being a strange and abrupt spoken word part in the middle, which comes and goes without making much of an impact on the song and allowing the party to continue as it was. This gets followed by the hugely out of place and surprisingly Beatles-like Lonely Town, sounding very much like a cast-off from Katzman’s solo career instead of a Vulfpeck original, and backed by an acoustic guitar and piano for the most part as well as the occasional jazzy vocal run. It’s not a bad song as such, and on its own it’s worth a few listens – but that also goes for the entire first half. As a whole it works better when listened to as individual songs than flowing together as an album. From one quiet song straight into the next one, Love is a Beautiful Thing is a peaceful and beautiful duet (which actually was a solo career song) with an ironic title; love is a beautiful thing until he realises the woman he’s in love with is married. The harmonies compliment each other perfectly during the chorus and last verse, the music is soft and subdued…and then some studio chatter spoils the atmosphere slightly, a band member summing up how I felt about the song perfectly – “that was great, that was THE SHIT!” For Survival features a particularly weird time signature, throwing the listener off at the end of each line as the vocals float on top of the rhythm and mostly stay in time with it, delivering lines such as “fill me with purple drank…for surviiivaaal!” in a cheeky, bluesy tone before the song trails off into a couple of aimless bridges and a springy, bouncy instrumental jam through to the end.
The album then goes into an entirely instrumental second half that’s straight up funk from start to finish, kicking things off with the winding and massively groovy Soft Parade that shows off Vulfpeck’s “no instrument overpowers the others” style of writing better than the first half did – even with the electric piano’s riffing and soloing being placed front and centre in the mix. Lost My Treble Long Ago features the thickest and heaviest bassline on the album, growing the song around it with fluid guitar riffs and horns as well as a drum break which sounds as though it could have been a classic hip-hop sample if it was released 40 years earlier. Disco Ulysses is the purest piece of disco on an album full of disco beats and melodies, however it also manages to be the weakest part of side B by being even more repetitive than the last track but with less layering and a sparse beat, giving the impression that was made simply for improving on live. The Cup Stacker focuses around solos and breaks more than anything, fitting four (drums, bass, guitar and keys) into a three-and-a-half minute song – which also features one very clever bit of mixing towards the end that won’t get noticed unless you’re wearing headphones. Finally, saving the hardest hitting track for last, the band’s fourth and latest incarnation of It Gets Funkier blows the roof off – having gone from piano-driven and lo-fi to slow and trippy with wobbly synths to having one of the best bass solos of this decade, the most recent version of it brings in guest drummer Louis Cole to speed it up by more than twice as much with some of the most complex and heavy drumming you’ll ever hear on a funk record. Trading off solos between the bass and drums (the bass solo on this version being another one of those best solos of the 2010s), the song finally comes to a stop after an exhilarating three minutes with yet more noise from the studio.
In spite of the decision to split the album in half between sung tracks and instrumentals, as well as feeling as though it was thrown together at times, Hill Climber puts forward a good case for bringing funk back to the mainstream – provided the band can sharpen up their skills at writing non-instrumental songs.
Genres… funk, soft rock, disco
Best tracks… Darwin Derby, Love is a Beautiful Thing, The Cup Stacker, It Gets Funkier IV