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A hit and a miss: Vulfpeck’s “Hill Climber” and Benny Blanco’s “Friends Keep Secrets”

The two albums both released on Dec. 7, but one is clearly better
The album cover for Benny Blancos new album, Friends Keep Secrets.
Image by Courtesy Photo
The album cover for Benny Blanco’s new album, “Friends Keep Secrets.”

Benny Blanco, “Friends Keep Secrets”

Most artists try to come off as authentic as possible for their debut release. 

Not Benny Blanco.

The longtime producer and songwriter for pop stars like Katy Perry, Rihanna and Ed Sheeran, released his first album, “Friends Keep Secrets” Dec. 7. 

He deserves credit for creating an album in which each song sounds like it could be on a Top 40 radio station. 

Almost every song on the 7-track album features a pop star guest. The first track, “Eastside” features two: Khalid and Halsey. It sounds just like many of the tracks on Khalid’s 2017 album, “American Teen.” 

The next track, “Roses,” featuring rapper Juice WRLD and Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, might be the album’s worst. The refrain, “Roses are red, violets are blue, my heart is dead, I’m such a fool,” sung by Juice WRLD’s auto-tuned, bland voice, is repeated far too many times for such a dull lyric. Urie’s 14-second solo hardly saves the song. 

“Just For Us Pt. 2” is the album’s only track without a featured singer. However, I bet that Bon Iver could sue Blanco for stealing his style in this song — that is how similar it sounds to any of the tracks on Bon Iver’s “22, A Million.” 

“I Found You,” a collaboration with Calvin Harris, sounds like any other Harris song but even more repetitive than usual (I know — I didn’t think that was possible either). The phrase “I found you” is repeated 31 times in the song. Yes, I counted. 

Overall, this album is anything but original. It’s all over the place stylistically — as if there are 7 different albums in one. “Friends Keep Secrets” gives listeners no sense of Blanco’s true essence as a musician — just the assurance that he can write a mediocre Top 40 song. 

Grade: D

Vulfpeck, “Hill Climber”

By contrast, Vulfpeck has once again offered a truly original album. The group has mastered the art of putting a modern twist on 60s and 70s-era music.

Though the first track, “Half of the Way,” feels a little “High School Musical” at points, it’s an energetic start to an album filled with smart, funky baselines, and retro vibes. 

“Darwin Derby” is a favorite. The song deeply evokes Earth, Wind & Fire, with its jingling guitars, groovy bass line and funky falsettos from Vulfpeck’s Theo Katzman and frequent collaborator Antwaun Stanley. 

The next track, “Lonely Town,” has a tone that can be likened to that of a jazzier cover of a Paul McCartney song like “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

“Love is a Beautiful Thing” is a sensual and jazzy duet between Theo Katzman and songstress Monica Martin, who brings her sultry vocals to this song. It is a jazzy tune with Latin influences — not a sound Vulfpeck has explored on their past albums. 

The group also created a catchy blues-R&B-country crossover with “For Survival,” featuring singer Mike Viola. Songs like “For Survival” highlight Vulfpeck’s ability to genre-bend with such ease — something that makes their sound both retro and unique. 

The last five tracks on the album are instrumental, but the infectious bass grooves and skillful guitar riffs make up for the missing vocals.  

Vulfpeck will take listeners back in time and ignite fires in their souls with “Hill Climber,” a full-out tribute to retro musicians and an admirable addition to their one-album-per-year roster.  

Grade: A-

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