Retrospective Review: Calvin Harris – Motion

Last month I had to face a cold, harsh truth: I’m past my Longboarding prime.

When I was seventeen, I picked up the hobby for like three months and I’m pretty sure I mildly impressed a few people. I even got those fancy Slide Gloves and learned to do a couple of legitimate tricks (I believe one was called a “Coleman”). Before I knew it, every girl in my high school wanted nothing more than to fuck my brains out. Just kidding, no one cared. But in all seriousness, as a lover of learning first and foremost, I had an absolute blast with the whole process – putting in the long hours and watching my rapid growth at this new hobby – just as I had done with guitar before that and sacrificing goats before that or whatever Fox News hosts think Metalheads do in our free time.

But as anybody past the age of eighteen is well aware, getting older means that your many interesting hobbies quickly narrow down to the two-or-three-things-you- kinda-just-do-to-avoid-blowing-your-brains-out-in between-grueling-work-hours. And as much as I love to Longboard – and would recommend it in a heartbeat to anybody I meet – my beautiful Landyatchz board has just been sitting in my garage for years and years.

So I finally pulled the trigger and sold it on Craig’s List for a hundred bucks. I immediately took that hundred bucks (which was paid to me in a single crisp Franklin) and cleaned out the Dance Music section at my local soon-to-be-bankrupt FYE.

One of my purchases was a used copy of Calvin Harris’ wildly successful 2014 album Motion. And when I say the album was “wildly successful”, I mostly mean two songs: “Summer” and “Outside” (the latter of which features Ellie Goulding). Both were utterly inescapable that year, and I have fond memories of being drunk at many a college party while they throbbed in the background.

For the last year or so, my main musical “research project” has been Electronic Dance Music. I’ve been frantically consuming anything even remotely related to that world, from ‘70s Disco to ‘90s Gabber to whatever the fuck Kraftwerk is, working hard to better understand the genre. I’ve been falling in love with it all at an alarming pace, and my goal is to eventually have the necessary background and knowledge to start reviewing it on confidently . But more on that quest later.

So in the midst of this exploration, I figured Motion would be a great case study when it comes to modern EDM crossing over into the Pop mainstream.

Motion was Calvin Harris’ follow-up to his breakthrough 2012 album 18 Months, which featured smashes like “Feel So Close” and high-profile collaborations with the likes of Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Ellie Goulding, and more. And like its predecessor, Motion’s track list takes a star-studded, radio-baiting approach, with only three feature-less tracks out of fifteen, and guests ranging from Gwen Stefani to Alesso to Big Sean to Ellie Goulding. What Calvin Harris did on 18 Months and Motion is a lot like what David Guetta did on Nothing But the Beat and Listen – tighten up house music to fit a compact Pop format, then pass off the hooks to A-listers. It’s a brilliant strategy, one that in retrospect, I’m surprised artists like Tiesto didn’t figure out a decade earlier (but then again, dance music wasn’t yet the full-blown phenomenon it would become).

Unfortunately – winning formula or not – collaborations need chemistry, and some of the collabs on Motion feel so shamelessly “pieced together”. One such instance is the Gwen Stefani-assisted “Together”, which has a lively drop and everything, but also has this cold, calculated-ness to it as Stefani sings some generic lovedrunk lyrics.

Speaking of guest appearances, Motion includes what I now recognize as one of the worst songs in recorded history – “Open Wide”, featuring Big Sean. It’s a complete piece of shit. I’m not sure what I despite about it most, the anti-climatic drop itself, Big Sean’s bars (he rhymes “blouses” with “trousers”), or his obnoxious, trashy refrain asking for…well, you can figure it out from the title. Let’s just say it makes Nickelback’s “Something In Your Mouth” look super fucking classy.

But other than a couple forced duets and a couple low-bro moments (I’d throw the heinous drop in “Overdrive” in the latter category along with “Open Wide”), Motion does deliver on its obvious M.O.. When it comes to lightweight, accessible, party-friendly dance songs, this album totally works. Couple that with the fact that most of its intended audience doesn’t give a shit about full albums (i.e. we can ignore a few duds), and it REALLY works.

Whether its Harris putting together a simple, uplifting tune on his own (“Faith”) or knocking a Swedish House Mafia-style banger out of the park (“Under Control” with Alesso), this is as non-threatening and approachable as dance music gets. It sounds tailor-made to soundtrack summer day drinks and club nights alike, and while it may feel cheap and easy at times, who am I to chastise the man for achieving his goal? Especially with standout tracks like “Outside,” which still launches my brain into a blissful party montage with every listen.

And while I may have been introduced to one of my least favorite songs I’ve ever heard, I also found a new favorite. When I first heard the HAIM-guesting “Pray to God”, my jaw hit the floor. No joke, I’ve listened to that song over fifty times since I got this CD. I am fucking furious with myself for missing the boat on it back when Motion dropped. Not only is the dance beat itself a mind-boggling, irresistible charge of adrenaline, but Danielle Haim’s soaring vocals make me wish she did more guest appearances. And the cherry on top is the uber-melodic guitar part that pops in as Harris hits the brakes for the song’s final 20 seconds. I can tell this one’s gonna stick with me for years to come.

Until I inevitably become an EDM snob somewhere down the line, albums like Motion are totally cool with me. Before writing this review I spent two weeks blasting this CD in my car with the windows down and had – aside from a couple completely intolerable songs – very little complaints. As long as people continue to party and continue to overlook shoddy deep cuts, the Motions of the world will never go out of style. That being said, though I’m sure Calvin Harris could easily keep pumping out albums like this for years to come (and I’ll probably dig a few tracks off of each one), I’m hoping that his latest smash single “Slide”, my second favorite song of the year so far, is a sign of greater things to come.

When contrasted with the material on Motion, “Slide” is so much more mature, multifaceted, and stylistically distinctive. And his two features, Frank Ocean and Migos, could not have been a more organic fit. Though Motion showcased Calvin Harris’ undeniable ear for hits, “Slide” has me psyched to hear this talent of his applied to a more unique, impactful project. ‘Til then, I guess my Longboard money went to good use.

August 2016 Album Round Up!

Hey guys! Hope your summers went out with a bang and the whole death-of-fun-and-sunshine-and-continuation-of-your-shit-life thing isn’t getting ya too down! As expected, August was relatively slow on the new music front. But in terms of new music, shit’s about to get crazy so I didn’t mind a quiet month. I got to chip away at my never-ending quest to “catch up” on classics, I got to drink excessively, and I got to put together a bit of a game plan for taking on the musical insanity that’s headed our way. Still, in any given month, there’s never a COMPLETE shortage of high profile albums. In fact, I think Frank Ocean and Young Thug purposely waited for a commercial lull to drop their hugely successful new projects. Not that either of them needed it, but it’s that much less space they have to share with their peers.

I’m so fucking psyched for the Fall. SO MUCH shit is dropping. Kinda like hanging out by the Seagulls at the beach. (Don’t worry, I didn’t actually just make that joke, it’s all in your head.) But for now, here are my thoughts on nine of this past month’s releases:

Emotion: Side B – Carly Rae Jepsen

That we didn’t get this earlier in the Summer is a travesty, but Carly Rae’s b-side collection from last year’s phenomenal Emotion LP is a rarity in that it’s as great as the main event was. Seriously, Emotion was in my Top 5 albums of 2015, and I’m enjoying these 8 tracks JUST AS MUCH. Carly’s songs are just as infectious when she’s bubbly and optimistic (“First Time” and Higher”) as when she’s down on her luck (“Cry” and “Roses”). As with Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered release earlier this year, Emotion: Side B proves that following a critical triumph with its leftovers actually HELPS rather than hinders its legacy. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Slow Death – Carnifex

I expected to hate the shit out of this. Deathcore is potentially my least favorite style of Metal – more often than not, it’s brute force over nuance, nihilistic ranting over thoughtfulness, and aggression for aggression’s sake. But I’m so glad I gave this new Carnifex LP a shot. It’s hardly the one-track minded Deathcore of early Whitechapel or Job for a Cowboy – rather, it’s a formidable amalgamation of a few different Metal niches. Standout “Drown Me In Blood”, for instance, is more of a brutal Death Metal/Deathcore hybrid, with some seriously catchy riffing in the chorus, and “Black Candles Burning” brings a touch of blackened Metal to the table. Not to mention the keys throughout the album on cuts like “Pale Ghost” add a slight theatrical element. Sure, there’s an abundance of low brow lyrics (check the refrain in “Six Feet Closer to Hell”…eeek), and Slow Death isn’t a Metal Album of the Year or anything, but it’s a friendly reminder that genre elitism is the worst offense a music fan can commit. RECOMMENDED

Fishing Blues – Atmosphere

 These prolific indie Hip-Hop giants followed up 2014’s Southsiders with a set of tracks that showcase Ant’s midas touch for slick, tuneful beats far more prominently than Slug’s rhyming skills. The instrumentals on Fishing Blues are spot on, while the lyrics are spot-TY in places. Slug drops some questionable bars, like “I wanna put my DNA in your American Pie”, or the entire track “Next To You”, which is about jerking off next to his sleeping girlfriend, and is as painfully cringeworthy as it sounds. But as expected from an MC of Slug’s caliber, he also has moments of greatness, like the self-aware “Everything” or the elegant scene-setting in the title track. All things considered – barring a few skip-worthy cuts – it still adds up to yet another solid Atmosphere project. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

No, My Name is JEFFERY – Young Thug

The Atlanta MC’s latest mixtape has earned him unprecedented acclaim, and for good reason. Tracks like the funky “Wyclef Jean”, the uber-melodic “Swizz Beatz”, and the impossibly smooth “Guwop” are some of the best Hip-Hop songs of 2016. Jeffery’s track list is not bulletproof (exhibits A and B: the obnoxious voice cracks on “RiRi” and the plodding “menace” of “Harambe”), and there’s still a part of me that’s irritated as fuck with Thugger’s whole schtick – the squeaky delivery and the unimaginative sexual vulguarity in particular – but that part of me is quieter than he’s ever been with Jeffery. It’s just too damn catchy. I’d go as far as to call it the best Young Thug project to date. RECOMMENDED

Echoes of the Tortured – Sinsaenum

I will admit, upon hearing Echoes of the Tortured , the debut from this Extreme Metal supergroup (featuring ex-Slipknot skinsman Joey Jordison, Dragonforce bassist Frederic Leclercq, and vocalists Attila from Mayhem and Sean Zatorsky from Daath), I felt mislead, and to a lesser extent disappointed. On The Jasta Show, Joey and Frederic sold their new project in a manner that had me thinking it would be a Black Metal and Death Metal hybrid, equal parts Darkthrone and Morbid Angel. In reality, they’ve unleashed eleven tracks of Death Metal and ten tracks of campy keyboard interludes. That being said, despite a few lyrical clichés (the Deicide homage “Inverted Cross”), it’s flawlessly executed. Check the middle of “Condemned to Suffer” for some amazingly catchy riffing, and check tracks like “Army of Chaos” and “Final Curse” for stripped-back headbanging grooves that recall the early ‘90s. If you’re at all into Death Metal, this is a great listen. RECOMMENDED

Encore – DJ Snake

Fuck, I did this one to myself. Electronic Dance Music is the latest “genre project” in my obsessive music nerd manhunt – I’ve been falling deeper and deeper in love with its many subgenres and the 40-year history of Electronic music, determined to become qualified to review and write about it in the next six months or so. Unfortunately, this means I’m giving every EDM release a listen out of sheer curiosity, even total nonsense like this. DJ Snake ironically titled his debut album Encore, which I suppose is encouraging for us in his case because an encore usually signals the end. Either way, the flavors on this LP range from plain Vanilla to Sweaty Butthole (to clarify for any sexual deviants, that is a NEGATIVE thing). The Skrillex collaboration “Sahara” features the most obnoxious EDM drop I have ever fucking heard. “Pigalle” is a close runner-up. That’s all I’m willing to share. NOT RECOMMENDED

Blonde – Frank Ocean

Listen to this. It’s fucking beautiful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Home of the Strange – Young the Giant

Young the Giant’s third LP comes with no major surprises – sauntering grooves (“Amerika” and “Something to Believe in”), reverb-soaked choruses (“Titus Was Born”) straightforward lyrical content (“Mr. Know-It-All”), and, periodically, some glossy synths playing back up (“Elsewhere”). I enjoyed the hell out of this band’s self-titled debut back in 2010 – it fit right in with Alt-Rock acts that I was into like Band of Horses, Cage the Elephant, and soon after, Imagine Dragons. For better or worse, Young the Giant are another agreeable indie Rock band. The (minor) issue that pops up with this particular sound is that Young the Giant and their peers tend to be pretty faceless and mild. Home of the Strange is often a fun listen, but it’s like wandering into a delicious pizza place in New York City- another block or two and you can find a similar experience. RECOMMENDED

SremmLife 2 – Rae Sremmurd

When I think of Rae Sremmurd, their music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. I think of Complex magazine controversially ranking their Sremmlife debut the third best album of 2015, ahead of Drake, Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, and, well, every other album that came out that year except two (Future’s DS2 and Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly). On their sophomore effort, the two MCs are a banger factory once again– there’s no denying that – but I find myself indifferent because there’s so little to explore beneath its charismatic surface. As a result, the record as a whole has had little replay value for me. But I will say that “Look Alive” is my favorite Rae Sremmurd track yet, and I totally understand why tons of fans are likely head-over-heels for this album. NOT RECOMMENDED