Zero 7: Simple Things

Simon Warner

Zero 7

Simple Things

Label: Palm Pictures
US Release Date: 2001-11-13

In this age of niche marketing it's refreshing to encounter an album that defies the usual categories. Zero 7's Simple Things could comfortably find its way in to a number of record store racks -- soul, jazz or funk, conceivably even world -- yet I discovered my copy lodged in the dance section, a testament to club culture's open door policy: if it's got a groove, grab it.

But the cross-the-board appeal of Simple Things -- it made a strong run for the UK's prestigious Mercury Prize in 2001 and is up for a Brit award in 2002 -- might actually be something of a curse in disguise. The albums that stand the test of time -- from Dylan's Blonde on Blonde to Radiohead's OK Computer -- tend to pose initial difficulties for the listener: they tempt you to resist at first, then, eventually, entrance you.

In contrast, Zero 7's debut collection quickly lures you, mirage-like, to its moods and textures -- mellifluous in melody, lush and layered. It brings to mind the vogue for smooth fruit drinks: sweet, rich and blended to a flavoured pulp. In fact, for all its masterful arrangements, for all its breath-taking production, Simple Things remains little more than ultra-sophisticated easy listening.

Not that that, in these postmodern times, can even be construed as real criticism. The rehabillitation of Bacharach, the contemporary zest for mid-century lounge and thriller movie soundtracks in the John Barry mode, have all meant that music that is easy on the ears does not, by necessity, easy on the mind.

Tasteful has become the back-handed complimented of the day and all of the tracks on this album have that discerning sheen. But at least a trio of the tracks rise above that particular description: the pearl-like musical settings on the tunes "Destiny", "Distractions" and "In the Waiting Line" carry just enough of a hint of grit to rise above the finely-honed, but ultimate mundanity, of much that surrounds them.

In each case, it is the addition of female vocals that lend a torch song quality to the proceedings: Sia Furler and Sophie Barker share the lead on the hypnotising "Destiny", then each take a solo role -- Furler on "Distractions" and Barker on "In the Waiting Line". These contributions are a disconcerting mixture of the assertive and the vulnerable, the kind of schizophrenic stylings that great soul singers from Aretha to Millie Jackson, Angie Stone to Alicia Keys have brought to their performances over the decades.

Neither Furler nor Barker, who each have co-writing credits on the album, are showcased in quite that way -- their distinctive vocal parts are mixed quite deeply, coiled in the compositional swirl. In fact, the results are a strange marriage of subdued white gospel and trip hop; echoes of Portishead's Beth Gibbons reverberate.

As for the rest -- all pleasant, car-cruising-at-night stuff -- we're largely faced with classy background muzak. "Give It Away" milks one delicious riff, entwining ripples of electric piano with a sweeping string section -- catchy but rather anaemic funk lite from the Mike Post stable of TV themes -- "Out of Town" has a mawkish yet mellow trumpet theme which would not be out of place, again, in an urban cop flick while "End Theme" ploughs a similar furrow -- sexy, cinematic phrasing.

But I still have the sense that Simple Things won't have that crucial staying power. I've already heard it used in upmarket bars and designer restaurants as the scene-setting soundtrack for drinkers and diners. Its inoffensive yet broadly anonymous voice, like buried sounds that haunt us in the supermarket aisle, brushes our consciousness but evaporates all too swiftly.





Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.


Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings Team for Wonderfully Sparse "Where Or When" (premiere)

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings' "Where Or When" is a wonderfully understated performance that walks the line between pop and jazz.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.