ven as I sit here with my headphones on listening to Zero 7, the band that played to a packed, enthusiastic Irving Plaza crowd last Friday, I still can’t decide whether I like them—rather, I can’t decide whether I should like them.
Pondering musical tastes with such coolness-quotient awareness is a cop-out, no doubt, and one that flies in the face of my own go-with-your-gut-instinct credo, but no matter how hard I try to compose my thoughts and listen to what my gut has to say about the British producer duo that takes on close to a dozen extra members onstage, my mind keeps looping—like the band’s signature wispy acoustic guitar and submerged rhythm—back to the same question: are Zero 7 the next logical step in the evolution of “chillout” and/or “trip hop,” or are they the UB40 of their genre and generation?
UB40, arguably the most commercially successful cover band since the torch singer era, took the politics and conflict out of reggae by treating the music as a method rather than a message. In so doing, they also took the personality out of it in much the same way that chain restaurants such as Chili’s and Chi Chi’s take the personality out of regional and ethnic cuisine. And, like those restaurants that offer what they consider a diverse array of chicken choices for the unwashed masses to choose from, UB40 offered a broad range of covers set to a waka-waka rhythm. Yet, metaphorically at least, all those choices just ended up tasting like chicken in the end.
Zero 7 deserves more credit than that for their debut Simple Things, a Mercury Prize finalist that’s awash in spliffed-out beats and sensuous vocals that merge as seamlessly as deep rivers into the mix of acoustic strumming and pitch-perfect effects. It’s smooth and comforting and covers you like a down comforter in its warmth and softness.
Yet, as an obvious offshoot of modern downbeat pioneers Massive Attack, Portishead, and even Groove Armada, you can tell that something has changed. Zero 7’s velvet-voiced female duo of Sia Furler and Sophie Barker have the same range as Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, but within the confines of a Zero 7 arrangement, they lack that sinister or morose side that Gibbons chilled us with. Male crooner Mozez has a voice that pours onto the microphone slower than maple syrup, yet there’s nothing half as sublime on Simple Things as any Massive Attack single. Mozez has been compared to Seal, and for good reason: It’s as if Zero 7 is a soul group with only half a soul.
At least, that’s the sense you get as they go through the motions in concert. Mozez melted more than a few hearts when he came out two songs into the night to sing “I Have Seen”, a slowly ascending musical spiral staircase, but we may as well have put our headphones on and popped in the CD for his lack of live improvisation. Sia, who looks like Baby Spice, came out next to wash the crowd in a commanding, seductive howl that belies her innocent, rhythmless dancing. Conversely, Sophie added too much hip to her swagger when she made her first appearance to slide through “In the Waiting Line”.
The three lead vocalists and two backup singers continued with an alternating rotation most of the night, taking brief interludes to let the rest of the band float through several instrumentals. During these instrumentals, you got a sense of the good-guy-bad-guy dynamic between the two producers/founders of Zero 7. Sam Hardaker favors quiet manipulation of his electronic equipment and took on the task of thanking the audience when arriving and bidding them farewell when departing after the third encore. Henry Binns, who arrived several minutes late with a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other, relished being in front of a crowd.
Binns wore a striped bathrobe and flat-billed hat for the duration of the set, which rendered him a cross between Hugh Hefner and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Hefner-ism is understandable for a band as sexual, or at least sensual, as Zero 7, but Binns’ other alter-ego was a bit confounding. He bounced back and forth between a Roland synthesizer, Mini-Moog and double-decker organ, all three of which he mock-pummeled on at least one occasion during the set. Thing is, he never showed prowess for any of his three instruments and his pounding seemed notably out of place as a result. No matter—the audience shouted their approval at each of his epileptic episodes. The rest of the band behaved themselves like the adept, unassuming sessions players they are.
That kind of audience approval was understandable as both a tribute to a solid, entertaining set of music and those moments, few and far between, when Zero 7 managed to stray from simply reproducing Simple Things for the live stage. Perhaps such lack of improvisation is the net result of being fronted by two producers who might consider the end-result in the studio as the end-result of the songs. It also gets to the heart of why I’m still undecided about what to think of Zero 7. Yes, I do listen, and yes, I do like what I hear, especially Sia and Sophie harmonizing between the chimes on the band’s breakout single “Destiny”, (the one that’s getting as much play on Adult-formatted commercial radio as it is in chill-out rooms), but I’m not convinced I will a year from now. Like a friend of mine said when describing another band: It’s way too easy to start liking Zero 7, which means it’s way too easy to stop liking them. I like them and I liked what I saw at the Irving Plaza, but check back in a year or two and see if that song remains the same.