Soft Hair, the duo of New Zealand psych-pop artist Connan Mockasin and electronic singer-songwriter Samuel Eastgate, a.k.a. LA Priest, have released one of the most bizarre and unique albums of the year with their self-titled debut. Before even giving it a listen, one can anticipate the oddness ahead by looking at the cover, which shows the two members with their arms around each other holding a snake, their creepily red-painted bodies naked down to the torso. Yet the disarming eccentricity of the group might be their greatest strength; they take structurally conventional funky tunes and add something extra, whether its the bleeping electronic voices on opener “Relaxed Lizard” or the warbly, washed out instrumentation of “i.v.”
As if that weren’t enough, they add fun but off-putting lyrics to the hooks of their catchiest tunes. Standout single “Lying Has to Stop” could act as an international smash hit on a different planet with its irresistible groove and smooth falsetto crooning from Mockasin, but lyrics like “I’d like to watch to you run but I’ll never touch your bum” make one ponder the merit of singing along to it mindlessly. Second single “In Love” is a spooky midtempo jam with a great vocal turn from Eastgate and blissfully phased out guitars, but has an even more questionable chorus, “In love with the Japanese girls/in love with the Chinese girls,” which is then accompanied by a wildly disorienting saxophone interlude.
These guys are most definitely out there, and this album certainly isn’t for everyone, but what shines through all the odd production touches, band appearances and quasi-predatorial lyrics is an amazing songwriting sensibility, a quality that trumps all. The fact of the matter is that these are simply wonderfully constructed pop-funk songs that will stick in your head like a sweaty itch, or an itchy sweat, or whatever makes your skin crawl in awe. It is most certainly worth a shot to figure out if you like this feeling or not.
The Michigan-based funk group Vulfpeck have developed a cult following in recent years for their electric live shows and irresistible grooves, paying homage to the great funk in-house studio bands such as the Wrecking Crew and the Funk Brothers while maintaining a constant energy on stage. They have never taken themselves too seriously, and their latest album, The Beautiful Game, does nothing to change that perception. Their growing popularity has resulted in a much more polished studio sound than their earlier EP’s, and they have added more featured vocalists to their typically instrumental catalogue, but the zany, infectious spirit of the band still shines through. Truthfully, the lyrics for Vulfpeck have always been a way of expressing their weirdness and clear preference for the groove over meaning. Longtime contributing singer Antwaun Stanley croons random sports euphemisms on “1 for 1, DiMaggio”, and standout “Conscious Club” features a bizarre skit about looking for a mysterious club in Berlin, none of which adds up to any sort of sense. However, this is clearly intentional by the group, as the surrealist lyrics add to the party that the quartet cook up with their instruments. “Dean Town” is a showcase for bassist Joe Dart, who has seen his reputation grow as one of the most talented bassists in popular music today, as he stutter-stops and chugs through a rollicking bassline that is rhythmic enough to drive the entire tune.
The album can’t exactly be considered a major step forward for the band, but it doesn’t seem as though they care about that fact. It doesn’t really hurt them, because their formula is such a winning one, but on the few tracks that act as a departure from their typical sound, we find that there is exciting territory for them that has yet to been fully explored. “Margery, My First Car,” updates an instrumental from an earlier release, with a beautifully haunting three-part harmony echoed by contributing vocalist Christine Hucal added to give the song a crossover-alternative sound. It is one of the first Vulfpeck songs to sound like something other than pure funk, and it is an intriguing glimpse into the future if they choose to go further down that path. Similarly, “Aunt Leslie,” sung by Stanley, is a rare minor-key effort that sounds like something that could be taken out of a crucial scene from an 80’s action movie. The song has arguably the best production to date on a Vulfpeck song, with cutting guitar from contributor Cory Wong adding perfect atmosphere, along with flamenco flourishes and horns and strings thrown in for good measure. Some of the solid instrumentals which would typically be par for the course on a Vulfpeck album, like the simmering “El Chepe” can’t measure up to these more daring sonic attempts, despite being the solid ground that the group excels in. All in all, this is an album that highlights the best of Vulfpeck while simultaneously giving listeners a sense that the best has yet to come.
– Will Jacobsen