When British duo Zero 7 (Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker) released their debut, Simple Things (Ultimate Dilemma, 2001), the dot-com heyday was still in full swing and overpriced supper clubs, with fancy lounges and fancy drinks, were popping up all over. Those places filled
with jerky, affluent hipsters needed soundtracks, and, for a while, downtempo was king.
Most of the music was opportunistically produced shit generic pre-programmed beats accessorized with mediocre divas' slick vocals ringing totally hollow. Every label suddenly had their own Thievery Corporation and, frankly, I'm not sure we even needed one of them.
So Zero 7 arrived with an album that, on the surface, could have been dismissed by those of us observing the masses' "cult of easy listening" as another frivolous cup of mind-numbing aural Kool-Aid. It did have a sheen (absent from their live shows), but because of some extraordinarily great singers and the two guys behind the decks coming at their craft with a real love of old, classic, melodic soul, Simple Things had integrity and stood above the rest.
With Simple Things, Zero 7 had made an album of new soul music. Not poppy neo-soul, but real, heartfelt ballads composed so lushly they cradled you. While many were finding safety and solace in their soon-to-be worthless stock options, others searched for emotional truth in things like art and music. Much sincerity was to be found in the music of Zero 7.
In the years since Simple Things was released, many who devoured downtempo
because they were told to have become the devoured and the downbeat. Things aren't
so simple anymore. Many of the dot-coms are dead, the dot-commers deadened and,
in turn, edgy, anxious and looking for music to fit that mood (thus the welcome
resurgence of really loud, biting rock 'n' roll). In that context, it seems like
Zero 7 by association with the times and their fine second album, When
It Falls, are on the verge of falling through the cracks. This would be unfortunate,
as When It Falls is superior to its predecessor in just about every respect.
Beginning with the slight call of bells and chimes before settling into a slow
groove, the album's opener, "Warm Sound," presents one of the band's four featured
vocalists, Mozez, in top form. Instrumentally, the track's a little dirtier,
more textured, than the too-immaculately designed songs he sang on Simple
While Zero 7's women always seemed comfortably situated in their arrangements,
he appeared a bit tacked-on, an afterthought. Throughout When It Falls,
however, Mozez, whose voice evokes both Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, is given
the spotlight in his songs, and his work stands out in a way it couldn't before.
Latest addition Tina Dico sings the album's second track, "Home." Along with
a rolling-undercurrent bassline and a plaintive trumpet, Dico is accompanied
by another instrument featured prominently on When It Falls: the acoustic
guitar. As strings fill out the track, bringing it to a crescendo, it's clear
that Dico has the talent to sing alongside the stalwarts of both Simple Things and When
It Falls, Sia Furler and Sophie Barker.
Furler and Barker are phenomenal, and their talents are displayed with great success on every song they touch. Singers rarely have the ability both to break your heart and make you want to fuse it back together, to make you want to love even more. Furler and Barker, singing individually, accomplish these rare feats with regularity.
When It Falls is full of songs about broken-hearted breakups, but also
about reconciliation and finding strength in those we love the most. On "Speed
Dial No. 2," Furler, whose voice has a unique elasticity, at times sounding like
Minnie Riperton and at others like Joni Mitchell, declares, "I don't need you
anymore," to a failed partner. But, after declaring, "I'm OK," she doesn't turn
and run; rather, she softly encourages him to "call me when you need me."
On "Passing By," Sophie Barker whispers, "I don't think you love me/ Confusion setting in/ I don't think I'll be staying around here anymore," and then, as the song turns from a quiet ballad to an almost bouncy psych-rock groove, she plays like it doesn't matter anyway, because she's only "passing by." Barker's voice is dustier and steadier than Furler's, and she stays sultrily measured, even as the music builds around her.
Binns and Hardaker, who started as technicians working with producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), initially created Zero 7 as a studio-only experiment. When the first album received such strong notice, they were compelled to build a band and take the show on the road. That experience informs the growing complexity of their compositions and the confidence exhibited in their collaborations with their singers. No one element of the production outshines another.
It will be interesting to see how they carry on, now that the times have changed,
sonically and otherwise. Their music is understated, but that doesn't leave it
devoid of emotion. If Massive Attack continued to explore soul music the way
they had on Blue Lines (Virgin,
1991), rather than embarking on their tense inward exploration, their Bristol-based
collective might have ended up making records like the Zero 7 collective does
on When It Falls.
When It Falls displays a more mature, slightly less refined Zero 7. And
that added emotional edge is welcome. I think beauty sometimes gets mistaken
for superficiality. This group makes lovely music; if you listen to it in the
forefront, not as the wallpaper to which most downtempo is relegated, there's
much to discover in their sentiment.