Starting out with chunky, retro-leaning 2-step workouts like "2020" and "Laika," SBTRKT established himself as someone who could mince old styles into complex pastiches that somehow fit into the futurist dialogue of bass music But when he was scooped up by prominent indie Young Turks, it seemed like something changed: a track like "Look At Stars" had all the melodic brilliance of SBTRKT's best work but the 2-step references were replaced by a cleaner, more modern palette of clean lines, contoured chord progressions and midtempo structures.
By and large, that's the sound we get on SBTRKT's eponymous debut album. There's only a trace of the garage aesthetic that used to define his work, and while there's still a definite skip here it's a post-genre apparatus rather than a continuum-referencing device. SBTRKT is a pop album, not a dance album. All but three of the tracks have verses, chorus, lyrics, everything. Instead of pasting vocals over busy tracks or forcing melodies in between complex beats, SBTRKT does everything he can to make his tracks suitable for these vocals (the subtle harmonic layering on "Trials of the Past" is something to behold).
The choice of vocalists is, for the most part, spot-on, because all of them are pleasant if just slightly generic. Sampha's perfectly smooth tenor (think a less withdrawn James Blake) meshes perfectly with SBTRKT's clean productions ("Hold On," "Something Goes Right"). Elsewhere vocalists like Jessie Ware, Roses Gabor and Little Dragon's Yukimi provide a female counterpoint that proves almost equally fitting. The latter two give the album its most uplifting moments: "Wildfire"—with Yukimi's childlike vocal—has a grit and texture rarely found elsewhere on SBTRKT courtesy of its grubby talkbox bassline. Gabor's "Pharoahs" features the record's catchiest, most irresistible chord progression.
The few instrumental tracks will provide some solace for those not impressed with SBTRKT's explicitly pop direction. While he's not going back to anything close to "Jamlock," it's hard to deny that tracks like the pseudo-elegaic closer "Go Bang" or the fidgety bloomer "Ready Set Loop" are anything less than lovely. It'd be tempting to say that SBTRKT has watered down his sound, but in reality he hasn't. He's simply found himself in a position where he can move in a lot of different directions without it sounding unlike what helped him get there in the first place. SBTRKT isn't going to break down any barriers in the obsessively experimental world that it was birthed, but it's a thoroughly solid listen all the way through. Which is a lot more than his supposed peers could say about their debut albums.
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Tracklist: SBTRKT - SBTRKT 01. Heatwave
02. Hold On feat. Sampha
03. Wildfire feat. Yukimi
04. Sanctuary feat. Jessie Ware
05. Trials of the Past feat. Sampha
06. Right Thing to Do feat. Jessie Ware
07. Something Goes Right feat. Sampha
08. Pharoahs feat. Roses Gabor
09. Ready Set Loop
10. Never Never feat. Sampha
11. Go Bang