After releasing preliminary singles, Calvin Harris’ summer album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 finally dropped. And although I’ve listened to a few of those singles, the overall sound that this album has–a mix of indie R&B, pop, dancehall electronica and sprinkles of funk–is unexpected from the usually EDM-heavy Calvin Harris. Because the sound is so different from the Scottish producer’s usual fare, that the album itself is relatively consistent in its delivery and the skill with which sounds are produced is a pleasant surprise. This of course doesn’t obscure the more problematic elements of this album, but it is definitely something that helped save this album from being the mess I assumed it was going to be, instead a solidly middle-of-the-road album that does some things well but manages to miss the mark the rest of the time.
Overall, upon first listen of this album, I had the overwhelming feeling that Calvin Harris went incognito through Soundcloud profiles and then tried to commercialize current underground trends in revamped vaporwave/funk tracks that have become more popular in the past few years. But instead of going to the original source material–James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, even Chaka Khan or Rick James–and understanding the musical history of what funk actually is, he just follows contemporary trends. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know his musical history (does he even know Earth, Wind, & Fire??) and realize how the sounds he capitalizes on–rhythmic bass, wavy clavinet, an emphasis on foregrounded drumbeats–combine altogether to make the classic “funk” sound. Most of Funk Wav utilizes these iconic elements but they always seemed soulless, the bassline empty, the drums lacking any sort of personality. Perhaps the worst thing you can say leaving a funk-inspired record is that it left you feeling lukewarm, void of emotion, at no moment impelling you to get up and dance. But that’s exactly what happens here.
This was especially true with the features on album. If you would ask me to pull some contemporary artists in to make a modern electronica-inspired take on groovy 1970s themes, I would put Ariana Grande, Future, Lil Yachty, Big Sean, and (definitely) Katy Perry at the bottom of my list. These features to me are the most indicative of how Calvin Harris missed the mark with the overall sound of this album–he doesn’t actually understand which artists are the best to mix with the kind of sound he was going for on this album, using top 40 pop singers and mumbling rappers instead of artists that have soul, energy, and personality. There are some standouts that match the funk style well: Frank Ocean and Khalid (because of their neosoul style, which falls much closer to the funk sound than pop stars or trap rappers) and Snoop Dogg (whose playful, laid back flow is a good modern iteration of how hip-hop and funk are related). Even the Migos’ style is snarky and confident enough to be successful on tracks like “Slide” and “Holiday.”
Another problem I had with this album: the songwriting and arrangement. The features on this album didn’t do badly but the also didn’t do anything necessarily extraordinary, the melodic lines often predictable, underwhelming, even boring. For example, “Heatstroke” has a satisfying mix of moist synths and groovy bass and by itself is fun song to bop to…But once you get to the chorus, Pharrell’s odd falsetto doesn’t mix well, more pop disco than funk disco. Pulling from the 1970s, yes. But from the wrong place, again reinforcing that he doesn’t actually understand his source material. Ariana Grande’s verses are too lowkey and never punchy or sassy. More suited for a traditional pop ballad than soulful funk. This is true as well on tracks like “Faking It” and “Feels”, which are never able to successfully meld the instrumentals and vocals, the parts always at odds with one another, the featured artists just as confused as Calvin Harris about what funk is.
All that being said, the production on Funk Wav is top notch. Each sound is incredibly well crafted and balanced. It’s also consistently good throughout, the album a cohesive body of work with each track complementing the next. Calvin Harris may not understand exactly what funk is, but his success as a producer is evident: each synth is just gooey enough, just echoey enough. Every bassline hits at just the right point, filling out the lower frequencies and never leaving an empty space in the overall soundscape of the album. Even the vocals, which I had a lot of problems with in terms of melody and stylistic choices, are well recorded and folded into the mix well. The vocals may constantly be at odds with the instrumentals, but this has a lot more to do with actual melodic decisions and less to do with where they fit in the mix.
I know this too, because when the vocals and instrumentals aren’t at odds, we get some really great tracks. “Slide” featuring Frank Ocean is still one of my favorite songs of 2017 so far. And you know I’ll be driving my car around town with the windows down while “Holiday” blasts out the windows, the mix of Snoop Dogg, John Legend, and Takeoff, bass and synth definitely bop-worthy. And “Rollin,” the Future/Khalid feature? Oof. Though I think Future’s bars suffer from a lot of the problems of the album’s other missteps, the horn-synth and Khalid’s vocals are so emotive, smooth, and wavy. It’s moments like this when I can see sort of the sound of Calvin Harris’ vision: a satisfying mix of nostalgia and modern.
Overall, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is an ok album, but full of uncomplementary sounds and missteps, making the whole thing sort of passable. However, the production is crisp and professional and the moments when Calvin Harris is able to get the sound right? Heavenly and sticky sweet. I just can’t decide if he did it on purpose or stumbled into it. If Calvin Harris decides to pursue this sound further, I think he could definitely get better as long as he goes back to the 1970s to find his inspiration instead of trying to replicate what other artists are already doing better. Also getting better features. Katy Perry? For a electronic funk album? Really??? Hearing her say “catch feels” makes me uncomfortable at best.
As I said before, my favorites from this album are “Slide,” “Rollin,” and “Holiday” because they are the few shining moments on an album which is mostly meh. The rest of the songs on this? An easy but forgettable listen.