A Side of Sia You Didn’t Know: Zero 7’s Beautiful Debut

Jul 27th, 2015 | By | Category: All Things Reconsidered, Reviews

zero7_simpleVirtually anyone with an interest in music has heard — and likely enjoyed — the work of Sia Furler. Her 2014 hit “Chandelier” reached No. 8 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and received four Grammy nominations. The previous year, “Elastic Heart” (featuring The Weeknd and Diplo) was featured on the soundtrack of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. And she has written hit after hit for artists including Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, David Guetta, Flo Rida and Rihanna.

But what not so many people know is before all that happened — and before her attempt to retire as a recording artist in 2010 — she had a long career including being known as the lead singer for the group Zero 7. That’s where I first heard her, and to me some of her finest work was with that band.

It’s not just Sia’s vocals that make Zero 7 worth a listen; to me, their albums are among a handful that provided my personal soundtrack to the “Aughts.” So I was excited to find out that their debut album, Simple Things, was being reissued on vinyl this month, good news for longtime fans like me who had missed the original vinyl release and had to cough up $150 for a used copy of the LP or content ourselves with a CD. Getting the vinyl in prompted a reevaluation of a simply beautiful album that was among those that to me defined an era.

Simple Things  hit the scene around the same time that the early Air albums came out, and while they shared similar sensibilities, only the least perceptive listeners would find them to be two sides of the same coin. Even a casual listen reveals the jazz inclinations of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker, the founding members and heart of the group. From the opening track “I Have Seen,” the band introduces jazz instrumentation and styling, with electric piano and acoustic guitar prominently featured. There is more than a touch of the best of Soft Machine in this album (hardly a bad thing to someone who considers the Softs one of the best bands ever). And the prominently featured backing strings make several tracks seem not miles away from Gil Evans with strings. In fact, if you compiled the many instrumentals on Simple Things into a separate album, few listeners would object to labeling it a smooth jazz (in the best sense of that phrase!) recording.

But there’s much more to Zero 7 than being a Soft Machine tribute band. Beyond the strings, there are plenty of electronic flourishes and accents that lift the tracks into new territory, as on instrumental “Give It Away.” It’s downtempo music, sure, but definitely adds a post to trip-hop. While there are hints of trip-hop in several tracks, this is music that has clearly moved on from that genre with only an occasional nod back.

And then there are the vocals. Sia is featured on the album — as she is on the following two — and she toured with the band. But she sings on only two tracks. The first, the stunning “Destiny” (which reached No. 30 on the U.K. Singles Chart) would be a great wedding song with its lyrics “When I’m weak I draw strength from you/And when you’re lost I know how to change your mood/And when I’m down you breathe life over me/Even though we’re miles apart we are each other’s destiny” — if it didn’t start with the lyrics “I lie awake/I’ve gone to ground/I’m watching porn/In my hotel dressing gown.”  Her voice is a sleepy, breathy mix that oozes sensuality. Her other contribution, “Distractions,” adds a bit of humor with Sia recounting how things just couldn’t possibly work out with her intended: “Fancy a big house/Some kids and a horse/I can not quite, but nearly/Guarantee, a divorce.” But then comes the kicker: “I love you, I love you, I love you, I do/I only make jokes to distract myself/From the truth.”

While Sia might have been the “lead singer” of Zero 7, two other vocalists together contribute more songs than she does. Sophie Barker handles “In the Waiting Line,” a catchy number with lyrics that, like many others on the album, sound just right but really make no sense: “Do you believe/In what you see/Motionless wheel/Nothing is real.” (In addition, Sophie supplies ethereally beautiful vocals on “Spinning,” one of two bonus tracks on the U.S. Palm CD release. Sadly, neither those tracks or album closer “End Theme” appear on the new vinyl release.)

Male singer Mozez handles duties on “I Have Seen,” “This World” and the title track. His voice nicely fits the material, but to my ears his wispy, limited range just doesn’t compare to Sia and Sophie.

Simple Things did not go unnoticed when it appeared in 2001. It was nominated for a Mercury Prize and won the Best New Album award from Muzik magazine. “Warm Sounds,” the title of the opening track on their follow-up album, is also an accurate descriptor of this one. The album has brought warmth and calm to me in the turbulent days of the early “Aughts” and continues to do so today.

Details

  • Artist: Zero 7
  • Title: Simple Things
  • Year of release: 2001
  • Year of first hearing by writer: 2001
  • Label of original release: Ultimate Dilemma
  • Format listened to: LP
  • Track Listing
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