Zero 7 - The Garden

The Garden, the third album from Zero 7, is the latest from the UK downtempo duo Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns. While the band’s first two albums feel a bit like swimming underwater, The Garden finds Zero 7 coming up for a breath of fresh air, with an equal blend of down- and up-tempo tracks which manage to entertain yet, in some ways, fall just short of the mark. Even so, the album exemplifies the duo’s propensity for writing songs that are catchy and hard to forget. While the group’s When It Falls (2004) album never quite lived up to the oh-so-high expectations set by Simple Things (2001), the group’s newest album seems to allude to the group’s realization that it can’t sustain success simply by repackaging Simple Things. So we have The Garden, an apropos album title that symbolizes the group’s growth and regeneration.

The most notable addition to Zero 7’s sound on The Garden is the addition of Swedish singer-songwriter, Jose Gonzales, one of the blogosphere’s many love children (deservedly so), whose voice has been perfectly matched to a number of the group’s patented electro-soul melodies. The combination sets a mood that is engaging and slightly – though not overtly – ambient; peaceful with a heightened sense of determination. It’s perfect for candlelight, wine... you get the picture. Gonzales’ captivating voice and the band’s slightly psychedelic tones call to mind high school days in a black-lit basement, listening to Pink Floyd for the first time. Just look to “Futures,” “Left Behind” and “Today” as perfect examples of why these two should collaborate on additional projects. Gonzales’ nimble finger-picking on acoustic guitar provide a much-needed diversion to the heavily synthesized songs that litter a good portion of the rest of the record.

Despite their attempts at creating an interesting diversion from Simple Things, only the songs that feature Gonzalez really grab my attention. Songs such as “The Pageant of the Bizarre” sound a bit too much like Morcheeba, while “If I Can’t Have You” carries the angst and bitter melody of a sloppy Fiona Apple cover. “Seeing Things” exposes the duo attempting to showcase their up-tempo chops, with mixed, slightly awkward results. The group resorts to cheesy drum-machine percussive effects and fluff-pop distractions rather than those luscious soundscapes that Zero 7 is known for at times creating so brilliantly. The same goes for “Crosses”, a trance-like remix of a Gonzalez original that loses sight of the original song’s subtle beauty with its heavy filler of blips and bleeps. This track, like much of the album, could benefit from fewer hypnotic, repetitive strains and a little more nuance.

Despite these criticisms, there are a few gems of note on the record. “Throw It All Away,” a captivating track crafted without benefit of Jose Gonzalez, makes use of strategically-placed time changes that gently tug the listener back and forth between a walking rhythm and a soaring refrain. Just as you begin to feel comfortable floating up in the clouds, a delicate outro comes in and slowly sets you back down. And speaking of excellent outros, the closing measures of “Waiting To Die” feature some of the best horn arrangements on the album, leaving you feeling peaceful and optimistic as you’re sent you on your way.

The album as a whole moves at a nice pace and features a number of moments of great mood music, the genre which has, of course, defined the band’s image to date. It is evident that Hardaker and Binns are challenging themselves as well as the listener by trying new things, which may leave longtime fans uneasy and new fans a bit confused. Regardless, The Garden exemplifies once again just how talented the two are at making music that is easy to enjoy, regardless of your familiarity with the bands previous work. It also provides a good hint, thanks to the occasional brilliant melding of Simple Things -era tranquility and newer, brighter sonic experimentation, that the duo is moving in a positive direction towards a bigger, better more musically diverse Zero 7.

--Karl Pawlewicz

Release Date: May 22, 2006 (UK) June 6, 2006 (US)

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