Review Summary: Justin Timberlake meets Schoolhouse Rock meets a bass guitar.
Everything about Hill Climber
seems like it should feel contrived. “Half of the Way” has the potential to become the radio hit we all complain about, but secretly enjoy and sing along to. “Darwin Derby” sounds like Justin Timberlake was commissioned to sing a song for Schoolhouse Rock, but didn’t know anything about Charles Darwin or animals in general. “Lonely Town” reads like my eighth-grade attempts at poetry. “Love Is a Beautiful Thing” would feel equally at home in a Broadway musical, an 80’s jazz club, or an elevator. “For Survival” straight up sounds like a Schoolhouse Rock song if the lyric writers went rogue. Suddenly, the vocals disappear so Vulfpeck can do what Vulfpeck does best: Get funky. Then, as you begin to wonder where the vocals went, “It Gets Funkier IV” ends and the 33-minute listening experience is over.
Those 33-minutes are an absolute ball and, importantly, perfectly paced. In “Half of the Way”, Theo Katzman’s vocals and hooks grab the listener immediately and then proceeds to drag them along for the first quarter of the album. Just when it seems like the showmanship may get exhausting, the album is slowed down with a beautiful duet between Katzman and Monica Martin (of PHOX) on “Love is Beautiful Thing”. Then we get back into the funk on “For Survival”, but with guest vocals from Mike Viola to keep the listener engaged. With the purely instrumental back half of the album, Joe Dart’s bass playing is an absolute highlight, especially on “Lost my Treble Long Ago” and “Disco Ulysses (Instrumental)”. Closer “It Gets Funkier IV” lets the whole band jam out, although Dart’s bass is once again the stand out.
While incredibly fun, it is interesting to note that nearly every song on this album is about heartbreak of some kind. The lyrics are bleak, pessimistic, and often don’t match the tone of the music, especially in “Half of the Way” and “Love is a Beautiful Thing”, while “Lonely Town” is fairly clear in its message. The dissonance created between the energy of the music and the lyrics isn’t easily noticeable unless listened to closely, ala “Hey Ya!”. Similar to the Outkast ear worm, there also appears to be social commentary going on that concerns masking the downtrodden lyrics among the energetic sound and catchy hooks, which adds an interesting layer to the album.
If all of this makes Hill Climber like a hot mess, it absolutely is, but in the most fun and brilliant way possible. Ending the back half of the album with purely instrumental tracks ensures that, unless they so choose, the listener never has to think of whether this album really makes any sense or not; they just get to enjoy the ride and have fun, and there’s no doubt this album is a whole lot of fun.