Apparently The Garden, the exquisite, Grammy-nominated gem cultivated by chill-ectronic duo Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker in 2006, marked the end of Zero 7 as we know it. The proof’s in the rather drab pudding Yeah Ghost, an inconsistent amalgam of forgettable material quite unrepresentative of the pair’s abilities.
The two seemed convinced the proverbial well of trip-hop sumptuousness had run dry, given their loss of Sia Furler’s collaboration and distinctive pipes, as well as their assumption that their superb catalogue already contained all they had to offer in the laidback groove department.
Following limited success with musical diversions Kling and Ingrid Eto, they evidently grasped at straws in their attempts to reinvent their sound. Eventually, they turned an eye to French footballer Zinedine Zidane’s fancy footwork (not, sadly, his film 21st Century Portrait and Mogwai‘s excellent soundtrack for it), and used his famed turn as inspiration for overcoming their reservations about a new direction in their sound – namely, the installment of pep.
Two other Gallic notables – specifically, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, best known as Air – would have provided a better template for reinvention, what with the post-modern masterpiece 10,000 Hz Legend serving as their brilliant departure from their digital Burt Bacharach beginnings. They’d wanted their tempos “ratcheted right up” for their latest offering. For this, Zidane’s infamous head butt might rather have inspired them, aggressively pushing them to leave more of an impression on the listener.
Alas, alas for, best intentions aside, Yeah Ghost is the duo’s least focused and least interesting effort to date. The pace is quickened a bit, but not throughout. And a departure from their accessible, organic melodies to which the Zero 7 faithful have become accustomed is also a disappointment.
A case in point is the awful lead single Medicine Man, one of four tracks that feature the adept vocals of newcomer Eska Mtungwazi. In spite of her best efforts, the track goes nowhere, plagued throughout by fruitless, synthetic tones and beats that only increase in annoyance as time wears on. If the attainment of the ‘poor man’s Basement Jaxx‘ label were the goal for post-Garden Zero 7, Medicine Man helps them along nicely.
The remaining tracks rarely induce the kind of indulgent satisfaction that their earlier material frequently did. Swing is The Pageant Of The Bizarre’s plainer, similarly carnivalesque cousin, possessing awkward smatterings ofharmonica and steel drums.
That track, as well as the dreamy yet sterile Pop Art Blue (redeemed only by Martha Tilston‘s lilting, breathy voice) and the tedious, Simple Things-like throwback track The Road, show Binns and Hardaker, while unable to truly recapture their past magic, to be unwilling to completely commit to upping the pace either.
All the better, actually, as perky selections such as Mr McGee, Everything Up (Zizou) – a direct reference to the aforementioned athlete) – and Sleeper, whilst displaying flashes of genius, ultimately show Zero 7 to be out of their element. They seem more comfortable with andante rhythms, channeling the likes of Doves in Solastalgia, sporting Radiohead‘s You And Whose Army-like vocal processing in Ghost sYMbOL, and Sufjan Stevens‘ vibes during the outro of Swing. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself scrambling to find The Last Broadcast, Amnesiac and Illinoise for relief.
Hopefully the unfocused songwriting and uneven assortment of styles are the transient failings of a band in metamorphosis. But it’s a shame that such issues were not resolved during the pair’s experimental, side project phase. Perhaps it’s bestto take solace in the fact that Zero 7 still can and likely will continue to surround themselves with superb vocal talent, and continue to be capable of showing, albeit rarely on this release, signs ofbrilliance.
Such signs are there, notably in the album closer All Of Us, or the beautiful, harmonic breakdown that occurs just past the three minute mark of Mr McGee. Here’s hoping that the pleasant-at-best Yeah Ghost is but a wispy, passing apparition, and not a haunting omen for similarly ineffective work in the future.