[1 October 2009]
For some reason, trip-hop and lyrical chill music is typically grounded by prominent female vocals. Portishead would not sound like Portishead without the unsettling shrill of Beth Gibbons. Lamb would not be Lamb without passionately soulful Lou Rhodes, and Broadcast wouldn’t be Broadcast without Trish Keenan’s surreal detachment. Sneaker Pimps utilized the vocals of Kelli Ali on their 1996 debut Becoming X, which cracked the charts in the US and UK thanks to the presence of the remixed-to-death “6 Underground” and “Spin Spin Sugar”. They booted her from the project after that debut, and they have not released an album since that has come close to repeating its success.
Similarly, Morcheeba’s signature sultry sound was given form by Skye Edwards, who was the face of their first four albums. After a bad tour in support of 2002’s Charango, they kicked her to the curb, and brought in a sound-alike named Daisy Martey for The Antidote. Daisy was so poorly received that she did not survive the album’s subsequent tour. They have not released a charting single since Skye’s departure. There is a reason vocalists ‘front’ bands, and it often has more to do with intangible character than pure talent.
For three albums, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker (the dynamic UK duo behind Zero 7) made their reputation producing café friendly, laid-back indie electronic albums with vocals a sigh away from being bittersweet. Their most consistent and recognizable collaborator was the beautifully bizarre Sia Furhler, who gave life to the first big Zero 7 single “Destiny” as well as many formative tracks along the way. However, since Sia’s sophomore album soared up to #26 on the Billboard 200 and Zero 7’s last album, 2006’s The Garden earned a Grammy nomination, they amicably decided to split ways before the recording sessions for Yeah Ghost began.
Though they weren’t exactly looking for a replacement, a replacement came along nonetheless in the form of Eska Mtungwazi, and the band’s karma wheel took a big spin. Apparently, Eska strolled into the studio one day with a Britney Spears album in hand and turned a “bunch of nothing” into four tracks. Three of them define the band’s new orientation, a pop happy place that was pointed to by The Garden‘s “Seeing Things”, but is fully explored here.
Overlooking the “Count Me In” intro, the opening track “Mr. McGee” announces the band’s new direction along the lines of the shock ska-loving No Doubt fans faced with the overproduced synth-pop monstrosity Rock Steady. It is a bouncy dancefloor effort boasting forgettable melodic development and overly girly “yoo-hoo” and “yeah, yeah” overdubs. The only interesting part of the track is the backward-sounding guitar—a sound that is a lot more disjointed here than the similarly distorted six-string on the righteous “This Fine Social Scene” from The Garden—but it is not enough to save the song. Likewise, “Medicine Man” is plucked straight from the ‘80s, with a cheesy synth lead and even cheesier vocals. It bobs along at a briskly upbeat pace while crapping out more of the “yeah, yeah, yeah” and “do-do-do” throwaways under the refrain, which is punctuated by a fluffy “outrageous” falsetto. Ann-Margret would struggle to be this over-the-top girly.
Eska’s “Sleeper” is somewhat less banal, but it is still not all that striking, starting off like an unreleased b-side to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” and ending up like a Nelly Furtado cover of “Closer” (Nine Inch Nails). None of the aforementioned Yeah Ghost tracks sound like they belong on a Zero 7 record. “Swing” also seems utterly out of place here. That number would sound exactly like Badly Drawn Boy producing a Cat Power song if it wasn’t for the trite steel drum loop that comes in halfway through.
The only Eska submission that brings anything worthwhile to the table is “The Road”. That is a captivating, soulful lullaby led by a pair of electric pianos, that comes off like a modern take on “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or a traditional gospel hymn. It is also the only Mtungwazi track that actually sounds like something Zero 7 would make. It could have easily been released on 2004’s When It Falls, let alone The Garden.
Aside from the few obvious boners, there are several worthwhile moments on the record. Zinedine Zidane homage “Everything Up (Zizou)” makes a decent case for their upbeat material, featuring Henry Binns doing his best Peter Gabriel come Huey Lewis impression over a space-case organic breakbeat instrumental. Showing a different possible avenue, “Ghost Symbol” is almost dubstep, with a heavy beat and tribal percussion under often indecipherably warped vocals and a few swirling, grainy digital manifestations. The closing “All of Us” leaves listeners on an unexpected note as a progressive yet minimal track made of sampled and reconstituted acoustic drums paired with some vintage electronic effects and, eventually, a little guitar.
What’s more, “Pop Art Blue” shows the band in classic form. The instrumental is constructed from moaning upright bass, jazz brushes, marimba, a plastic-ish guitar, and a touch of banjo, all carefully placed under the dulcet tones of Martha Tilson. It is the only track on Yeah Ghost that has the same kind of gravity that made tracks like “Today”, “Passing By”, and “I Have Seen” so thoroughly engrossing. It’s the only track that hints at the kind of sweeping cinematic soundscapes and subtly introspective lyricism that the group made its name on and should still be capable of executing.
It is hard to say if the departure of Sia is completely to blame for this failure, since Zero 7 albums have always featured a wide range of guest vocalists. It is not the same as the Morcheeba fiasco, where the band should have changed their name after losing their formative lead singer. It just seems a little odd that as soon as Sia left, Zero 7’s “warm sound” went from chill to cold. I have no idea why their production value would walk away with her, and yet, this is sadly the case. Maybe it’s some kind of downtempo curse.
It sounds like they simply did not put the same level of effort into making this record as they had the previous three, but perhaps the opposite is true. They may have been so concerned about repeating the methods of their rich back catalogue that they didn’t end up doing much of anything, trying to go minimal and ending up muddled. Yeah Ghost comes off like a band desperate to reinvent themselves and struggling to piece in all the sounds they still love to make. Fans coming to this expecting a Zero 7 album will likely find it thoroughly disorienting and/or frustrating, which is the opposite effect their first three albums produced.