Zero 7 – The Garden

On their third full-length album, The Garden, British downtempo darlings Zero 7 play (or at least attempt) a little bit of addition by subtraction. The new record marks the first significant shift in personnel in the band’s short history, as well as a handful of tweaks in the sultry, languorous sound that quickly became their trademark following the release of their smash debut Simple Things.Gone are Tina Dico and Mozez, both of whom have been tending to the release of their own solo albums in recent months, and Sophie Barker, who along with Mozez was a big part of the group’s signature style with their vocal performances on both of Zero 7’s first two full-lengths.

In to stem the tide of their loss in the vocal department are Jose Gonzalez, the Swedish folkie wunderkind whose European debut Veneer hit the Top 10 in Britain following its release, and original Zero 7 co-conspirator Henry Binns, who takes a few moments away from producing and arranging to take up vocal chores on four of The Garden‘s tracks. The lone holdover amongst the exodus is Sia Furler, who has also released a solo record of her own recently; she takes the lead about as much, if not more than any single vocalist in the group’s canon to date.

The Garden is more of a grower than any of Zero 7’s previous efforts; the effortless resplendence of Simple Things and the best moments of When It Falls have been replaced in part by arrangements that are more dense and involved than before, and closer to the conventional notion of “pop.” In their attempt to find a reliable fallback in all of the turnabout, Binns and Zero 7 co-founder Sam Hardaker find it in the four contributions from Gonzalez, whose songs provide the most immediate impact of any on the album. His high, steady tenor burrows itself right into the fabric of “Futures,” the lead-off track, the reflective “Today” with its double-tracked vocals, and the 75-second songlet “Left Behind,” which evokes ghosts of Nick Drake with its minimalist acoustic & voice treatment. Binns & Hardaker even get a crack at retooling Gonzalez’s own “Crosses,” transforming the spare original into a full-bodied soul rave-up, stocked with congas, synths, strings and handclaps, and a rolling, circular bassline that frames his dance-friendly refrain of “cast some light and you’ll be alright.”

Sia, now the only female in the fold with Dico and Barker gone, finds herself in the unusual position of being the closest thing to a “star” that Zero 7 has ever contained, after her sudden success from the appearance of her song “Breathe Me” on Six Feet Under. Her best moments come on lead single “Throw It All Away” and “Waiting To Die,” the latter of which belies its title and goes the route of a breezy, sun-splashed lark instead. Her mannered stylings are much more of a contrast to Gonzalez and Binns (with whom she duets on three tracks) than they were to Mozez and Sophie Barker, who were stronger and more assertive vocalists. Gonzalez and Binns are not as much suited to feature status on a full-blown pop record, which The Garden has sporadic aspirations of being, even as the group’s roots are still well-represented. Thus, it does take a little longer to get acclimated with the back-and-forth approach this time around. Worry not, though, benefits will be reaped, even as it does take a little bit longer than before.

Simple Things was one of those landmark albums, one of those untouchable achievements that always lingers in a group’s rearview mirror as long as they’re in existence, cited by critics and sparring fans alike as the yardstick for everything that comes after it. The chances of Zero 7 reaching that level ever again are remote, but they’re far too early in their career to be worried about recreating their original halcyon moment. The Garden finds Binns & Hardaker weathering the bumpy effects of their newfound status as “veterans” of the downtempo scene quite nicely. The results might not be as immediately satisfying as their earliest material, but with the help of truly talented folks like Jose Gonzalez, they’ll downshift into the heart of their career with ease to spare.

(Atlantic Records)