Let’s get the clarifications out of the way right from the start: when talking about SBTRKT, feel free to pronounce it “subtract”. This isn’t MGMT, where they get upset if you call them “management”. Of course saying each individual letter S-B-T-R-K-T can be a bit stressful to the tongue versus how much easier the 4 letters of M-G-M-T are to rattle off. So save some breath and just keep it simple. That could also very well be the unofficial motto of SBTRKT’s self-titled debut. Calling it easy on the ears is accurate, but by no means should that indicate that the music is dumbed down or skewed purposely towards picking up as many new fans as possible. Downbeat electro minimalism is the name of the game, and unlike his similar counterparts in a James Blake or Jamie Woon, SBTRKT isn’t trying to make his music glitchy or tough to follow. Compelling and expertly crafted seems to be good enough for him, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.
You should know that SBTRKT is less of a musician and more of a producer. He’s helped out a number of artists and done plenty of remixes, to the point where he’s known much more for that stuff than any original material he’s put together himself. In creating his own songs, most everything is electro-heavy without much in the way of actual live instrumentation. There are vocals on most of his songs, but they’re never his own. Guests on his debut album include Sampha, Little Dragon and Roses Gabor, among others, all contributing their voices to songs that are tight and engaging while holding onto a grand sense of modesty. The couple instrumentals definitely hold their own, but SBTRKT is smart in spacing them out across the album to avoid running into too many quiet, vocal-less passages. Additionally, the emphasis placed on the song itself rather than a particular beat or other element gives each track an earnest and more pop-driven appeal than a lot of the other music coming out of this particular subgenre.
While the first couple tracks on the album are by no means bad, it’s not until “Wildfire” hits that things really start to take hold. Little Dragon’s super smooth vocals are a big part of what makes it work so well, very much akin to her guest spot on the song “Empire Ants” from last year’s Gorillaz record “Plastic Beach”. Sampha does the wealth of singing on the album, guesting on about half the tracks. His voice has a distinct quality to it that works well in an R&B sort of way, and thankfully SBTRKT provides him with the necessary backing elements to pull off a solid assist. “Trials of the Past” is his biggest moment on the album, though “Something Goes Right” is pretty accurately titled as well. Roses Gabor’s turn on “Pharoahs” makes for a later highlight too. What surprising is how remarkably solid the entire album feels. For something that’s got a mixture of guest appearances, it could easily have fallen into territory like UNKLE, where the list of contributing artists can make or break it. Whether it’s one or three or ten, SBTRKT is smart enough to have the guests play to his strengths rather than the other way around.
Putting it bluntly, SBTRKT is for the crowds that have wanted to get into the more downtempo, quieter side of electronica but have had a tough time doing so because other artists have made it difficult to do so. They’re simply flexing their creative muscles to their maximum, and interesting though it may be, commercially appealing it is not. SBTRKT may not have any full-on club hits via his self-titled debut, but at the very least this is a wholly listenable and remarkably interesting set of songs. Experimental may not be the operative word that comes into play, but when you know how to put together a strong set of songs, the innovative side isn’t necessarily the most important one. Not knowing much about what a SBTRKT record might sound like considering his pedigree and initial EP, this record is a pleasant surprise. If he’s able to continue to put together albums this good, keep an eye and an ear out – SBTRKT is one to watch.