Zero 7 The Garden

[Atlantic; 2006]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: downtempo, trip-hop, electronica, acid jazz
Others: Morcheeba, Air, DJ Cam, Bob James

Vocals never featured prominently on earlier Zero 7 albums, so as much as the group's moody instrumentals and chilled out torch songs alluded to a litany of soul, jazz and rock touchstones, no one has ever raised a fuss about labeling Zero 7 "electronica." For their fourth full-length, however, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker pull out a genre-bending wildcard. Swedish urban folk troubadour Jose Gonzalez contributes vocals to four of The Garden's tracks, creating a space for sturdy melodic lines and rich acoustic instrumentation. The six cuts featuring trip-hop vocalist and longtime Zero 7 collaborator Sia also favor organic sounds and place emphasis on the human voice's presence. Studio whirrs and bleeps may swirl about in the peripherals, but we're clearly dealing with an unabashed pop record here.

Refurbishing archetypal tics of '70s pop and soul chart hits has always been one of Zero 7's strong suits, and their ability to conjure Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder fuels this album's best (and poppiest) songs. "Futures" captures Gonzalez unwinding more than he ever has on his solo recordings, replacing the austere, monochromatic arrangements he favors with swinging lite jazz fit for happy hour at a blue collar pub. And if "blue collar" seems like an odd descriptor for a Zero 7 tune, "Futures" is an uncharacteristic number, even on this record; a lively groove and spaciousness give the song a spontaneous feel devoid of the sheen for which the group is so often criticized.

"Throw It All Away" is another manifestation of pop chart fandom, boasting an ELO-sized chorus and a gloriously gaudy acoustic guitar solo that puts The Eagles' wankiest bridges to shame. Though too long to find a home on Top 40 radio, "Throw It All Away" still makes every note count, offering a number of foci and reasons to fall in love with it.

Hooks aren't as plentiful in the rest of The Garden, unfortunately. "Left Behind" in particular seems to apologize for its own melody, as Gonzalez establishes a prominent, steady vocal line but never develops his utterances into anything more than an overly pleasant blur. Binns and Hardaker have never shied away from ridiculous keyboard embellishments or luxurious textures, but they still seem afraid of being too pop – they want to replicate and retransmit pop's atmosphere and instrumental tropes, but they too often treat their singers as pieces of furniture to be positioned just-so alongside sexy Rhodes piano blurbs and "tasteful" acid jazz drum loops. As much as The Garden departs from past Zero 7 albums generically, it ultimately falls into the same trap: it readily signifies pop accessibility, but fails to communicate more than a vague aura.

1. Futures
2. Throw It All Away
3. Seeing Things
4. The Pageant of the Bizarre
5. You're My Flame
6. Left Behind
7. Today
8. This Fine Social Scene
9. Your Place
10. If I Can't Have You
11. Crosses
12. Waiting to Die

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