Is The Joy Of Music, The Job Of Real Estate Vulfpeck's Undoing?

Picture a circus brimming with color, excitement, and unrestrained wackiness. Weld that mental image to your favorite funk performance, whether it’s a distant memory or one of the Internet’s many treasures. The result should be invigorating, intoxicating, and most importantly, a spot-on Vulfpeck depiction.

Jack Stratton leads Vulfpeck, literally and figuratively producing a repertoire extending beyond music. Combine Jack Stratton’s handiwork with the remaining, ever-changing members, and you’ve a group of risk-takers: daredevils with instruments, if you will. In fact, after funding a tour using $20,000 in streaming royalties, every cent from their silent (not a single decibel) album, Sleepify, one might say the instruments are inessential. It’s unsurprising how Vulfpeck subsequently sold out Madison Square Garden without a professional manager or record label. The band makes history for a hobby! The Joy of Music, The Job of Real Estate, an album born from the $70,100 eBay auction of its tenth track slot, marks for the band another first. However, publicity stunt aside, the album divides fans unlike other albums. Has a nearly six-digit sale cost the group something of greater value?

Earthquake Lights, with mysteriously deep pockets, bought the tenth track slot. “Off and Away” fills the space, nose-diving into abandonment’s aftereffects with a living, breathing string backing. A passionate vocal performance animates the song’s runaway lover, creating in the listener deep hatred. As the singer periodically visits the chorus, he begs the subject to “tell us we’re not worth it anymore.” Lines of this sort hint at the singer’s longing for closure. Only when it’s received can he divorce the song’s “us” from himself. The band collectively presents the piece with great expression, paying careful attention, in particular, to dynamics. It pays off. Yet for all the alluring characteristics, the song fits poorly into Vulfpeck’s catalogue except for this album. Unfortunately, that’s because this is an album of puzzle pieces, each from a different set.

Jack Stratton advertised The Joy of Music, The Job of Real Estate as a full-fledged album whilst announcing the tenth track’s eBay auction. He failed to mention that of the album’s nine remaining Vulfpeck tracks, three are covers, and five are originals, three of which arrived years ago. Do the math and realize Vulfpeck mixed half an album with old selections and one well-crafted eBay sale. Depending on your tastes, this sounds either horrendous or interesting. Thankfully, after listening, it seems more the latter.

“Bach Vision Test,” one of the album’s gems, quirkily retells Bach’s musical stories. Numerous synthesizers dance about each other, forming a piece that differs with your perspective. Pick out one synthesizer the first listen, and another the second. It’s a different tune each time and that’s Bach’s magic put into play. The same complexity exists in the “airport love song,” “LAX,” though on a smaller scale, courtesy of the various percussive sounds opening the track. After the introduction, singer/frequent collaborator Joey Dosik runs through a series of airport-themed lyrics. Certain lines are painfully weak and put in only for rhyming. Others are playful, creative, and humorous, especially “[I’ll be] all over you, like I’m TSA.”

Vulfpeck’s brilliancy really shows in their rendition of Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier’s now standard, “Poinciana.” Featuring “the founding four,” Jack Stratton, Theo Katzman, Woody Goss, and Joe Dart, each member sings their part into talkboxes, forming four-part harmony. It must be one of, if not the weirdest “Poinciana” cover, justified by the band’s ridiculous additions. The band also covers The Beatles on “Something,” though it has no place on any album; it shows no musical progression since the original’s 1969 release. Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, a renowned drummer for decades, gives to the live recording a “purdie shuffle.” It intrigues the listener momentarily, but quickly loses its glamour. It’s no competition; the far superior original, featuring George Harrison’s vocals and George Martin’s orchestral arrangement, evokes much more emotion.

Misstep aside, other tunes redeem Vulfpeck’s sin. “3 on E,” featuring Antwaun Stanley, celebrates (the musical note) E’s repeated use in music throughout the years, a well-known example being Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” The singer observes the note’s use, describing it as “an ancient secret that’s been passed down orally” and “a simple bass notation beneficial to your health.” The prospect of a bass notation benefiting your health is comedically wonderful, and makes the song along with funk guitars and synthesizers a joy.

Instrumental tracks remain, some lousy while others are spectacular. “Santa Baby,” a Philip Springer cover from Woody Goss, treats the Lo-fi fans out there and seduces those who’ve yet to discover the style. The track’s primary component is Goss’ Fender Rhodes playing a funkasized version of the holiday staple. Goss went further. He went digging, digging into his brothers’ VHS tapes, that is, where he extracted the audio from an old party and set it in the tune’s background. It’s common for Lo-fi music to have white noise of this sort, and it only makes escaping from reality’s noise that much easier. Given that many Vulfpeck fans stream their music throughout their hectic daily routines, “Santa Baby” is a wise inclusion. “Eddie Buzzsaw,” featuring saxophonist Eddie Barbash, imitates a bird call over funk backing. On paper it sounds irritating; nobody likes those pesky, deafening birds, especially when they wake us early each morning. In this song, it’s truly the opposite. It’s hard to pass up the saxophone’s enticing growl, especially when it’s the album’s most spacious recording.

Maybe you should pass up “Test Drive (Instrumental)” and “Radio Shack,” though. They’re the album’s weakest songs. Both are unmemorable and borderline embarrassing for a band who’s capable of much better. The melodies feel awkward and forced, having no real flow or destination. The instrumental performances are impressive, still, with Cory Wong’s rhythm guitar and Joe Dart’s bass blending nicely and driving the group. These are talented musicians, that’s unmistakable. However, on these songs their writing abilities sorely lack. What is worth mentioning is how Vulfpeck recorded the slightly better composition, “Radio Shack,” in a literal shack built by Jack Stratton during the initial COVID-19 boredom.

Shed studios are uncommon, for sure, though it seemingly serves the band well across the album. This is a spacious sounding affair. Each song demonstrates the power of three-dimensionality rather well, especially “Eddie Buzzsaw” as previously mentioned. There’s plenty of low-end punch, as funk needs, and an equal representation of higher frequencies for twangy guitars and electronic experimentations. The mid-range could come out a little more, though its incredibly minor absence doesn’t distract. Even the tenth track, recorded in a different studio with different musicians, shines in tandem with the rest. It’s sonically magnificent and approaches the fidelity of the past’s better analogue recordings. Knowing the weight that statement holds, hats off to the production crew.

Fans of both AnalogPlanet and Vulfpeck (hopefully there are some) will question why this review took nearly a year to write. It didn’t. Thanks to Qrates’ record manufacturing process, where the artist and pressing plant cooperate to press only as many records are pre-ordered, this copy arrived only recently. When it showed up, the order had become a distant memory and therefore a pleasant surprise. Still, for most collectors, a nine month wait is ludicrous. Readers should approach Qrates with caution, understanding that your order may take the better part of a year. The system undoubtedly helps artists; no records need go unsold. To the customer, it’s forgettable and the pleasantry of a record’s long-awaited arrival wears off quickly. Ironically, the shipping experience of all things describes the record fairly well. The Joy of Music, The Job of Real Estate took too long to release (Vulfpeck’s longest gap between albums), and while it’s generally a fun listen, it has no message. The songs don’t form a cohesive album, making it more of a glorified compilation album if anything. It receives a seven out of ten because the songs are individually very enjoyable, but in all honesty, for a well-structured and exhilarating compilation of Vulfpeck compositions look no further than their 2019 Live at Madison Square Garden album. YouTube even offers dynamic on-stage footage of the performance paired with the recording. That’s a thrilling experience. This, on the other hand, should be retitled to The Job of Music, The Joy of Real Estate. When your album’s best feature becomes an eBay sale, turn the ship around.

For a dad’s perspective on son Jack Stratton’s music career read (dad, pictured on album cover is in real estate) read this WAPO story.

(Nathan Zeller is a 17 year-old Beatles fanatic and budding audiophile found in Western Canada. Currently, he’s getting back into his school routine. It’s made him feel very motivated, and he hopes to contribute more to AnalogPlanet when free time is available.)

COMMENTS
Greed's picture

I think the model of pressing records specifically for sale is ludicrous. There's a reason that most industries have stock in warehouses; it makes sure that people aren't dealing with specifically what happened to you: a wait that takes the better part of a year!

I understand that it removes some risk from the artist's standpoint by allowing them to not have to have their money tied up in a thousand records sitting in a warehouse, but really they aren't perishable if stored properly, are they? Press for demand, and press more reactively.

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