Zero 7 have never been a band known for smash hits and major singles. Their albums tend to be cohesive, downtempo electronic affairs. Primary composers, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker achieved commercial and critical success with their 2001 debut, the Mercury Music Prize-nominated Simple Things. Yet, as time has passed, from that release till last year’s, Yeah Ghost, Zero 7 have seen a waning of both personal (e.g. mine) and critical opinion. Despite working with a diverse pool of collaborators and guest vocalists (including Sia Furler, Tina Dico and Jose Gonzalez) across a total of four full length albums, Zero 7’s greatest hits leans heavily on their first, capturing their broad essence yet failing to convince anyone that this is a must own. It might instead serve as a primer for Simple Things, a charming atmospheric album many picked up after hearing “In the Waiting Line” as an official Zach Braff selection on the Garden State soundtrack.
The disc is not arranged chronologically, but, whatever the organization, the chosen songs diligently represent Zero 7’s atmosphere and it leans towards more vocal-centered tracks that define their later albums. The folksy sound of “Futures” and “I Have Seen” open the compilation, with the male vocalists (Gonzalez and Mozez) warm tones inviting the listener in. They are followed by the perfect refined production, “You’re My Flame”, more upbeat but enhancing Furler’s sweet, honest illustrations, of the innocent pleasures of her affection, and setting them forward. It’s still well within the Zero 7 atmosphere and suits the background music of a picnic or a Sunday brunch.
Next comes “Destiny”, which along with “In the Waiting Line” later, are the strongest, most outstanding examples of the band’s warm ambiance and likely their most recognizable. The “Destiny” music video earned a lot of airplay for its rotoscoping visual technique. These two are included with five other songs from Simple Things (which is half of that entire album). Excluded are a couple of Simple Things’ great instrumentals, “Give it Away” and “Likufanele”, though perhaps this was a conscious decision preferable to neglecting any guest vocalist from their greatest hits album. Or simply rational since three other instrumentals from the same album (“Polaris”, “Salt Water Sound” and “End Theme”) are already included.
Another upbeat song, “Mr. McGee”, is perhaps the most questionable inclusion or the most unfortunate placement right in the middle between the downtempo track “Home” and the light, melodic “Swing” with its steel drum rings. Eska Mtungwazi’s processed vocals grate on the listener; the song is highly acerbic not at all attuned to the environment. Relaxed bodies on an evening after a barbeque might perk up when this intrusion breaks the chilled mood. But afterwards, the rest of the compilation won’t brand a new listener with any significant impressions as it returns to Zero 7’s greatest strength, downtempo, cinematic and inviting compositions.
Record is being released as a deluxe version with a second (unmixed) disc of remixes as well as the standard single disc version, which this review covers. The deluxe version might please longtime fans hoping to collect many remixes on one disc. Or perhaps a bonus DVD, with the “Destiny” music video or live footage, or the inclusion of a few of Zero 7’s own remixes, like N.E.R.D.’s “The Provider”, could drawn more interest in owning this as a collector’s item. But as it stands, the single disc is passable for new listeners. Most people should pick up Zero 7’s full length Simple Things for a solid atmospheric album. If a few more uptempo songs won’t do you any harm, this compilation is not so bad for your backyard.
// Notes from the Road
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