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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1449

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Zero 7: The Garden
by George Graham

(Atlantic 63380 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/28/2006)

For more than forty years, trendy British bands have given us some of the best and the worst pop music. There were bands whose music will long endure, and others who sold a lot of records, but then disappeared in a flash, going into well-deserved oblivion.

This week we have a new recording by a British band who have achieved some degree of popularity for their interesting brand of what is now being called "downbeat" music, that's both mellow and potentially danceable. The group is called Zero 7, and their latest recording, third full album is called The Garden.

Zero 7 is basically the handiwork of two gentlemen, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker who started working as recording studio engineers, and at first did remixes of other people's music, such as that of Radiohead. In 1999 they put together an EP of original music under the name of Zero 7, and two year later released their first full album, called Simple Things, in which they collaborated with various vocalists and songwriters, including Sia Furler, who has been with them since then. The group's music began to attract attention, with their first CD going Gold in the UK, and their music has ended up in various soundtracks. With Zero 7 essentially being a studio effort, with lots of different sonic elements, Binns and Hardaker enlisted as many as 20 people to perform their music live.

The duo continued their collaborations on Let It Fall released in 2004. Now they are out with The Garden which I think is their best yet. It's a fun pastiche of different elements, largely from the mid to late 1960s, put together with attractive melodies and quirky but smooth-edged arrangements. Binns and Hardaker, starting out as remixers, have taken that cut-and-paste philosophy to their original music, borrowing stylistic fragments from such diverse sources as Nick Drake, the Beach Boys, Bert Bacharach, Kraftwerk and 1960s bossa nova, and some of the horn arrangements of old soul records, among others. Despite all the retro elements, their music has a rather contemporary sound, or I guess I could say that it rather defies easy categorization. It's also interesting that despite Binns and Hardaker's background as remixers, there are relatively few samples making up the music, with the great majority of the sound created by the gathered musicians, and most of the sounds come from either acoustic or vintage electric instruments, with usually an undercurrent of buzzy old 1970-era synthesizer sounds. It's a clever manipulation of musical ideas, rather than existing sounds, and the CD runs the gamut in those influences.

There is a fairly regular band on this CD, with guitarist Dedi Madden, Robin Mullarkey on bass, and Tom Skinner on drums, when real drums are used.

Leading off is Futures, featuring Jose Gonzalez doing the lead vocals. It hints at the sound of early recordings of the band America, with some "space-age" synthesizer thrown in. <<>>

Released as the album's first single is a song called Throw It All Away, with Sia Furler doing the lead vocal. The duo throws in a flugelhorn line straight out of Bert Bacharach, with hints of the Beach Boys in there as well. <<>>

An appealing song called Today also shows some Bacharach influence, tempered by some old-fashioned beeping synthesizers, all set in a slightly frenetic bossa nova beat. <<>>

Another creative mix of disparate elements comes on You're My Flame. It's a love song with offbeat lyrics, set in an interesting mostly electronic arrangement. <<>>

Likewise a love song with a lyrical twist is The Pageant of the Bizarre. Ms. Furler, who co-wrote it with the duo, seems a perfect vocalist for the song. <<>> Before it breaks off into an odd mix of a Gospel and Beach Boys style vocal chorus. <<>>

There is one instrumental on the record, Seeing Things also takes a kind of retro electronic direction, while having its share of sonic cleverness. <<>>

One of the most interesting and ambitious pieces on this sonic mulligan stew of an album is a track called Your Place, which goes from an kind of intimate electronic piece <<>> to closing out with a big horn section. <<>>

The one track where the eclecticism does get a bit out hand is called Crosses, written by vocalist Gonzalez. It's the CD's lengthiest piece, in which the influences and sections of the arrangement seemed to have been stitched together as if they were the leftover ideas they could not fit into other tracks. Harry Binns does one of his rare vocals. <<>>

The CD ends with another of its songs of quirky lyrics. Waiting to Die is a kind of combination of love song and lament at global warming, again featuring the horn section. <<>>

The Garden the new release by the group Zero 7, headed by former remixers Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker is an enjoyable and creative recording that cleverly stirs together so many musical borrowings from about 40 years ago that it ends up sounding quite new. It's got a lot of eccentric charm, and it can be fun for those with long memories to try to pick out where this or that influence comes from. One can definitely tell that these guys have spent a lot of time listening to easy-listening pop of the 1960s, but their cleverness in creating this sonic melange sets this apart from a lot of other retro and revivalist recordings.

Our sound quality grade is a "B." A certain amount of clarity and dynamic range got lost in all the studio manipulation of sounds. But the audio is generally pleasing and is in keeping with the retro quality.

There seems to be a bit of a trend going on among some pop bands toward this kind of mellow music, with groups like Kings of Convenience and the French band Air. Zero 7's new third CD is one of the best and most creative yet in the contemporary genre.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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