It may not have maintained the low-key genre-fusing mystique that it had back in 2011, but SBTRKT’s highly enjoyable nexus of R&B, bass music, house, and dubstep on his self-titled debut still sounds as sleekly well-balanced as it did four years back. The music’s appeal hasn’t changed, but what it means has, at least where career-arc-plotting curiosity is concerned. Its release saw Aaron Jerome move from across-the-board multigenre remixer (Basement Jaxx‘s “Scars”; M.I.A.‘s “XXXO”; Mark Ronson‘s “Bang Bang Bang”) to someone wielding a consolidated, self-contained signature sound, which gave his future endeavors a lot of promise.
What SBTRKT means now, however — especially in the wake of a you-had-to-be-there live album and three underdone instrumental EPs tellingly named Transitions—is weighted down by the old expectation-dashing “what could have been” question. It’s not always a given, but the sophomore slump for rising artists pushing into pop crossover potential is frequent enough that even looking at the guest list for Wonder Where We Land looks like a warning that he’s tried to mess with the formula Too Much Too Soon. And the music bears it out: if you think the idea of an album that tries to incorporate scene-stealing hip-hop and indie rock figures into a once emotionally nuanced style is ominous enough, the execution is somehow even more chaotic.
Let’s dig to the core first: three years would be a long time to wait for a slight re-envisioning of what worked the first time, but the finer points on this record nearly approach the better midpoints of the debut. Sampha‘s coolly ambivalent yet reservedly powerful vocals have always been one of the stronger elements in SBTRKT’s arsenal, and he’s all over this record: Fighting against a subwoofer earthquake with multitracked, reverb-blurred warmth that even makes the phrase “what the fuck is that?” sound cosmic on the title track, trembling his way towards a punch-back chorus on “Temporary View”, alternately reining in and showing off his rangy melisma as he slides through the stripped-back disco-house of “Gon Stay”. For an album that features one of Jessie Ware‘s best icily delivered leads since Devotion (“Problem (Solved)”), it’s saying a lot that Sampha is the best thing going on this record.
It’s not saying too much, though. The two best singers on the debut are, perhaps not coincidentally, the two best singers here, while the bigger-name guests—the ones that stretch SBTRKT’s sonic reach the furthest—just don’t work. Ezra Koenig isn’t exactly the most egregious feature here, but the enigmatic jokiness of “New Dorp. New York.” isn’t done any favors by the free-associative lyricism. Are Black Israelites supposed to be wacky NYC cultural flavor? And is the line about “baseball bats that never hit home runs” a reference to threatening weaponry or just another joke at the Mets’ expense? The two hip-hop crossovers trip up the album even more, not so much because they’re not that good but because they just don’t click with the rest of the album: singer/rapper Raury‘s run-on restrained intensity brings a personal edge that isn’t done justice by its ambiguous coffeehouse surroundings. As for A$AP Ferg‘s soul-baring, shakily-singing turn on unlikely closer “Voices in My Head”—detailing his self-medicating efforts to deal with his father’s death—it feels so much like an ambush of untethered feeling that it pretty much washes away the more subdued pleasures of the Sampha, Jessie Ware, and Denai Moore cuts that precede it.
With all the work to try and incorporate these far-afield guest vocalists aside, it’s worth noting that the production itself is more reliant on them than ever. Underneath them, the music is often flat and unadventurous, tasteful where it could stand to be raucous and rigid where it needs to be limber. A two-minute arpeggio-riddled uptempo cut called “Lantern” is the most energizing moment here, as the rest of the backing tracks lean so heavily on darkly hovering minor-key bass murmurs, gloomy piano chords, and soppily distorted digital strings that it’s easy to forget how intriguingly off-kilter some of his drums can be. From here on out, expecting SBTRKT to promise anything in particular is going to feel like a gamble, and probably a pointless one. But at least it’s clearer than ever that there’s a side to him which he’s stronger at expressing.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1vOjsPn