How long does it take before an artist loses the high esteem it earned by releasing a superior debut? All too often a promising or accomplished debut is followed up by a weaker younger sibling. Such was the case with 2004's When it Falls, which took the easy-listening tendencies of duo Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns a little too far. Still, it wasn't enough of a reason to completely abandon Zero 7, whose 2001 debut, Simple Things, was one of the decade's strongest electronic records. It was also a great example of what could be accomplished in smooth down-tempo if the artists don't create the bland work the genre's audiences sometimes seem to demand.
But The Garden, the group's third record, might be enough to cause most of Zero 7's original fans to jump ship. Gone is most of the musical adventurousness that redeemed the most seemingly cliché moments of the debut. In its place is the timeless desire to go pop, with guest vocalists José Gonzales and Sia "They Used My Song on Six Feet Under" Furler leading the way. Sia is featured on half of the album's twelve tracks. Her voice is great in moderation, but her mannerisms work best in brief appearances, and when she becomes too affected, like on "Waiting to Die," it hurts the song as a whole. Like most of Zero 7's work, "Waiting to Die" is constantly on the verge of cheese as it is.
Binns steps out from behind the booth for three tracks, two of which are duets with Sia. His solo performance, "Your Place," moves at a nice clip and lends the record a stronger sense of warmth than can be found anywhere else. Besides that, nothing on The Garden sounds like a garden; the natural beauty that seemed to radiate from Simple Things seems to have eluded the duo. There's only one instrumental, and it's a weird, space pop/krautrock movement that doesn't fit right in the Zero 7 catalog.
It's possible that Zero 7 will gain as many fans as it loses with The Garden. Certainly, anyone convinced by Zero 7's appearance in Garden State or by its previous record that it is a group worth following won't find much fault here. José Gonzales, a perfectly shrug-inducing singer, will be a revelation to these people. The market for non-threatening, earthy electronic music is enormous, and Zero 7 is the perfect group to dominate that market. It's never really clear what makes someone cross the thin line of musical legitimacy in this genre, but Hardaker and Binns crossed it a while ago. And at this point, it doesn't appear that Zero 7 is ever coming back.
Zero 7 Web site