Zero 7, The Garden (Atlantic, 2006)

Zero 7 revolves around the songwriting, producing, keyboard playing, and programming tandem of Englishmen Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker. They work with a core of backing musicians that includes Dedi Madden on guitar, Robin Mullarkey on bass, and Tom Skinner, but have used a rotation of singers over the years. Their sound is generally described as "electronica", but that label is too narrow to describe the Zero 7 sound; yes there are plenty of synthesizers and electronic effects, but the music tends to be laid back, with a strong soul influence. For the third Zero 7 album The Garden, the primary vocalists are Swedish singer José González, a newcomer to the Zero 7 fold, and returning member Sia Furler. Both have active solo careers complementing their work with Zero 7. Sia is best known for the song "Breathe Me" that played in the final sequence of the series finale of Six Feet Under. Binns plays an active role in supplying the backing vocals for the first time, and even sings lead on "Your Place."

As with the previous Zero 7 album When It Falls, The Garden contains a number of likable songs, and the collaborations with different singers bring a healthy amount of variety to the mix. Sia's soulful vocals succeed at being sexy in a way that's smooth and subdued, not raunchy or over-the-top. Her highlights on this disc are the waltzy "Pageant Of The Bizarre" and the snappy "This Fine Social Scene." González contrasts this with songs that are a bit darker and more cerebral. The acoustic-flavored opening song "Futures" features some fine multi-tracked harmonies, and the simmering extended piece "Crosses" is carried along by a very distinctive riff on the electric piano.

For all the electronics, Zero 7 aim to make music that's accessible to mainstream rock and pop audiences in addition to alternative audiences, and they generally succeed. Unfortunately for them, The Garden is the hardest kind of album to promote commercially; it contains many pretty good songs, but lacks an obvious single. This would have hindered their chances for a breakthrough in the past too, but in the current age of iTunes, iPods, and single-song downloads, they're really fighting an uphill battle. This is unfortunate, as The Garden works very nicely as a whole, and gets better with repeated listens.

Overall grade: B+

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