The Garden (Atlantic)
by Tim Den
British electronica/soul duo Zero 7 refined the soothing stylings of chillout/downtempo with their excellent first two albums, so it’s no surprise that the act has decided to dip its toes in different waters with album number three. Not substantially different waters, mind you: It’s still the same ocean, though perhaps a different shore. Greatly reducing the rich, sleek, and bottom-end heavy production approach of their past work, the duo have turned in a slightly retro and more uptempo record with The Garden. The sonic quality of the songs is still crystal clear and velvet lounge-worthy, but the less processed feel (i.e. organic drums captured with room mics for that open, air-y sound) lends the music a more down-to-earth, “open spaces” characteristic. Instead of rubbing elbows with Thievery Corporation, The Garden could almost hang with The Cardigans’ Life. The swinging meter of the songs don’t hurt, either: “This Fine Social Scene” and “Waiting to Die,” though hardly as upbeat as “Carnival,” definitely aren’t in the same sleepy, fuzzy arena as “In the Waiting Line” or “Home.” The ever-so-slight additional bounce and playful rhythmic phrasing give them almost a summery vibrancy that Zero 7 have never had before. Whereas the band were associated with lavish, minimalistic, decadent soft electronica in the past, The Garden is almost singer/songwriter-meets-’70s Krautrock, a development certainly because of the contributions from José González (who sings and writes on a number of tunes here) and the duo’s newfound obsession with (what must be) synths straight outta them educational science films of the ’70s (check out “Seeing Things” and “You’re My Flame”).
Of course, not all is peaches and cream. Only Sia Furler returns out of the outfit’s past team of vocalists, and the melodies suffer a bit because of it. Simple Things and especially When it Falls were catchy upon first listen, but not so with The Garden. It takes a while to become familiar with the hooks and refrains, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s obvious that the songs could’ve used ideas from the AWOL Sophie Barker, Tina Dico, Christine McVie, and Mozez. But these are minor complaints: The Garden is still quite pleasing and enjoyable, and – though not as essential as the band’s first two records – definitely worthy of your bucks.