By James Whitlow

Since its formation in 2011, Vulfpeck has made the revamping of old-school funk its singular mission, and the band’s Oct. 17 release, The Beautiful Game, shows marginal progress. In the album, the group looks back over its shoulder at a few bygone conventions of funk while delivering lighthearted and easy listening. It does not tread new ground, but when it comes to groove, Vulfpeck has few contemporaries.

The quartet, hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, does not wholly sound like a typical funk outfit, which is to its credit. Gone are the multiple-bar vocal flourishes and silly sexual innuendo that passed for lyricism in the 1970s, and in their places are rock-solid instrumentation and groove clearly inspired by Motown’s Funk Brothers.

The Beautiful Game takes a notable step forward in the group’s production. Its first release, Mit Peck, sounds as if it could have been recorded on an iPhone, but The Beautiful Game continues the band’s improving production-value without sacrificing its staccato, stripped-down sound. All its albums have an improvisational feel – like they were recorded in one take – and even though The Beautiful Game has a bit more polish to it, the record retains Vulfpeck’s signature warmth and cadence.

Prior to The Beautiful Game, the most of the band’s releases were instrumental EPs. In that area, the group excelled. The musical chemistry between the band members was apparent – particularly between the bassist, Joe Dart, and either Jack Stratton or Theo Katzman behind the drum kit – because there were no lyrics to divert attention from their instrumental prowess. That is not the case for The Beautiful Game, and it proves to be the album’s greatest misstep. Trite, comically exuberant vocals plague “Conscious Club” (a lukewarm re-release) and detract from otherwise rollicking tracks like “1 for 1, DiMaggio.” The only exception is the song “Margery, My First Car.” Although it is a re-release of “My First Car,” the gauzy vocals in this iteration add some variation to break the song’s strophic monotony.

Those gripes aside, the tracks are, for the most part, memorable and well-constructed. The sparse keyboard stabs from Woody Goss and Dart’s caroming bass keep the songs fast-paced, with just enough meat on them to satisfy a famished listener. A couple songs like “Daddy, He Got a Tesla,” and “Animal Spirits” are forgettable, anodyne funk, but they showcase the band’s instrumental talents.

And that cannot be stressed enough. These guys are killer musicians, but something is missing. Funk has never been a magnet for capable lyricists or storytellers, but that’s not to say it can’t be. It would have been nice to see a funk band with a thoughtful story to tell, but the goal is to get your foot tapping, not your brain working.

There is not much for you to think about here lyrically, but there is plenty to chew on instrumentally. Although the consistent groove distracts from the lack of thematic content, the album comes off feeling frivolous and unrefined – or unaffected, depending on your point of view. It is a beautiful game, but it is also one without much point.