Zero 7's arranged `Garden'

British duo's ambient pop sounds flourish with sense of cohesiveness on richly layered new CD offering

September 07, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

At every turn in this place, something bright and a little exotic captures your attention: a bold sonic flower, if you will. The Garden, the new album by the ambient-pop British duo Zero 7, presents aural blossoms of various textures and colors. Artfully arranged, they brilliantly complement each other.

"I just like the way the album pulled together all these random, disparate things," says Sam Hardaker, the available half of Zero 7. He and his partner, Henry Binns, were performing in Portland, Ore., last week. "It's kind of pulling together the different experiences we have, a garden of different experiences and ideas."

It's the group's third album, the follow-up to 2004's slightly tentative When It Falls. On Wednesday night at Washington's 9:30 Club, Zero 7 will perform cuts from the new CD. Assured and fluid, The Garden bests the duo's internationally acclaimed 2001 debut, Simple Things.

"We wanted it to be an experience that you can see through to the end," says Hardaker, 35. "We wanted the people to hear it as one body of work."

This new sense of cohesiveness was partly inspired by the change in recording style. Leaving behind the hectic studio environment of London, Zero 7 recorded the bulk of The Garden at Binns' new home in the idyllic Somerset town of Glastonbury.

"The place felt like it was more conducive to working," says London-based producer-musician Hardaker. "We were working half as much but doing twice the work. It was open and fun, really."

Hardaker and Binns, who in the early '90s started their production career as tea boys at a London recording studio, had for the most part finished The Garden before adding the strong vocals of longtime collaborator Sia Furler and Swedish singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez (profiled on Page 9). Before, the singers usually contributed more to the process as the music took shape in the studio. But this time, the two felt more confident in overseeing everything.

"There was just this positive flow while we were working, and Henry and I just went with it," Hardaker says. "I don't know what brought on the confidence. There was always a sense of uncertainty in the past. We just sat down and made this record. ... It wasn't labored. It felt a little more simplistic this time."

And it all reflects on the new CD. But there's nothing really simplistic about the music on The Garden. Granted, the arrangements aren't as dense as before, but they're still richly layered. The feel of the music is looser, a bit more spacious with subtle electronic underpinnings. Jazz flourishes enliven the organic instrumentation. Serpentine lines of brass give way to buzzing synths as Furler's soulfully hypnotic vocals float over it all. Glints of Laura Nyro and the Beatles show up here and there, but Zero 7 freshens classic '60s pop ideas in its evocatively beguiling soundscapes.

"This was the first time that we were coming to terms that we can really make records and have confidence in it," Hardaker says. "The other times, we were pulling together material in a desperate attempt to make an album. This time, Henry and I just hung out, you know, and wrote music. We were more laid back this time."

The relaxed state translates to the stage, Hardaker says.

"We have our laptops and a band: drums, bass, guitar, keys," he says. Singers Furler and Gonzalez are also on the tour. "With the laptops, we can bring in some sequencing, some sampling. The live stuff leaves us open for different changes. We want it to become as exciting and engaging as possible, which is good."

Check out Zero 7 at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, Wednesday night. Tickets are $25 and are available through tickets.com or by calling 800-955-5556.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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