The year is 1976. Crosby, Stills & Nash are in the recording studio, laying down some wistful folk-rock harmonies alongside the electronic astral projections of Vangelis. Steely Dan are also there, infusing the session with their easy-going jazz-pop. Laura Nyro drops by to lend some white girl soul to the affair. While these recording sessions are nonexistent to most of us, Zero 7 are supple time-travelers and clever conjurers, with direct access to the master templates of the past and the knowledge of how to transform them into something new.
The duo, consisting of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker, are also prescient forecasters of the musical near future. Back in 2001, when they issued their debut album, the platinum-selling Simple Things, they saw that the world was ready to move out of the more downcast tones of trip-hop and into a form of electronic pop with softer edges and a more buoyant heart. It’s five years later, and that album is still bearing fruit. It spawned the career of Zero 7 guest vocalist Sia (Furler), whose 2004 album, Colour the Small One, recently caught on in the U.S., and it also supplied HBO with the soundtrack to an especially dream-fueled bumper for its original programming, with “In the Waiting Line” scoring scenes in reverse from The Sopranos and other shows.
The year is 2006, and Zero 7 are issuing their third album, The Garden. Binns and Hardaker have been carefully mixing their 30-year-old influences with the flavors of today into what will likely be the soundtrack to tomorrow. This new disc continues their sonic evolution from Simple Things. While quite enjoyable and very successful, that first album also bore the weight of the trends upon which it was built. Morcheeba had already laid the foundation for a more soulful take on trip-hop and Air had established an electronica-era version of lounge-pop. Zero 7 blended these two together on their debut, crafting their own style from them. Their second album, 2004’s When It Falls, found Zero 7 reaching out to further realms, but not always hitting the mark. A bit uneven, it caught them in transition.
Now we can hear the full realization of where they were headed: forward into the past. The Garden works on all levels, by updating the old approach that brought them success and by bravely moving into new terrains. They have also created an album that offers both variety and coherence, with its shifts in moods, styles, and vocalists all coming together in what feels like a planned progression. Returning for her third stint with Zero 7 is Sia, the sultry Australian singer most closely associated with providing the group’s vocal style (perhaps to the chagrin of the under-recognized Sophie Barker, who also lent her voice to the first two records).
Sia takes the lead on six tracks this time around, including the lead single “Throw It All Away”, a serpentine pop song that slips out of its moody verses into an effortlessly uplifting chorus that catches the lightning flash of musical theater in a lovely little sunlit jar. Lending Zero 7 some indie cred is José González, the gentle-voiced Swedish (it’s true) songwriter who carries on the tradition of sweetly sighing, melancholic singing popularized by Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. His own dulcet tones provide a nice contrast to Sia’s brassier style and are also beautifully paired with the very nice harmonies of closet vocalist Henry Binns.
With all this singing going on, The Garden has room for only two instrumentals, “Seeing Things” and “Your Place”, each of which serve to cleanse the palette and provide musical scene changes, as the album moves from spaced-out synth wanderings to organ-based electro-jazz-pop to dreamy trip-hop to ambient acoustic folk. These always-smooth transitions occur within songs as often as they do between them, rewarding more and closer listens.
With The Garden, Zero 7 push beyond the electronica genre and out into an unnamed territory, an adventurous and yet highly listenable vocal pop for the 21st century. In Zero 7’s capable hands, it is fertile land, indeed.