Vulfpeck’s new album ‘Mr. Finish Line’ is all over the place

In a 2014 interview, Vulfpeck’s Jack Stratton described his vision when the band came together: “I read an article… about a German engineer who did Queen and ELO and I got the idea that there was the German version of the Funk Brothers or the German Wrecking Crew,” referencing legendary producer Phil Spector’s studio band.

Three years later, Vulfpeck’s newest release stays true to that idea. It’s hard to talk about “Mr. Finish Line” as an album, because as a record it’s really not cohesive at all. After all, Spector himself described LPs as “two hits and ten pieces of junk.” While the album certainly isn’t junk, there is definitely a disparity between the two singles and the rest of the tracks.

The album is very much a collaborative effort – there are just two songs that don’t feature another artist, “Tee Time” and “Vulf Pack.” The artists featured on the album range from longtime Vulfpeck collaborators Antwaun Stanley and Christina Hucal to seasoned industry veterans Bootsy Collins, David Walker and Michael Bland, musicians who played with Parliament Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder and Prince, respectively.

Also joining the ensemble cast are Danish vocalist Coco O, of Quadron, and Joey Dosik, a solo performer who penned “Game Winner,” a song Vulfpeck covered in its previous album, “Thrill of the Arts.”

Covers feature prominently in this album: The two singles (“Birds of a Feather” and “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh”) released prior to the album are both covers, and “Running Away,” another notable track, was written and performed by Joey Dosik. These are also arguably the strongest songs on the album, with Antwaun Stanley wrenching the listener’s heart apart on “Birds of a Feather” and Charles Jones, the self-proclaimed “King of Southern Soul,” bringing the house down on “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh.”

What does it say about an album when the best songs off it are songs the band didn’t write?

It depends on what you’re trying to do with the album. If Vulfpeck was looking to make a splash and show the world their skill at songwriting, Mr. Finish Line can be considered a dismal failure. Vulfpeck’s an established band, however. This is their third full-length album, and they routinely sell out concerts. Their fanbase is some of the most avid out there. This album comes across less as a testament to Vulfpeck’s songwriting as it does a vehicle to explore the current state of music.

“Finish” fuses veterans of R&B’s golden age with artists actively exploring the revival of Soul and R&B in contemporary music. You’ve got Collins and Bland cheek-by-jowl with songs written by Mocky, Dosik and Ryan Lerman – the best of R&B’s past with the best of R&B’s present.

The resulting experience is a nuanced, introspective but, at times, vibrant one. If last year’s “The Beautiful Game” by the band was an optimistic, exuberant outpouring of the sunny sounds of the ’70s, “Finish” is a decidedly more somber, thoughtful and nuanced take on that time period. It feels all over the place because it is all over the place, because Soul as a genre doesn’t have just one mood, one feel, or even one decade.

In short, it’s an incoherent album that has a few standout tracks, but the more you listen to it, the more it grows on you. Check out the singles, explore the catalog of the artists featured on the album, and give it a chance – by the third listen-through, the songs easily dismissed upon first listen really begin to shine in their own right.

Notable tracks: “Birds of a Feather,” “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh,” “Running Away,” “Grandma.”

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