Zero 7- When It Falls (Elektra)
review by Joe del Tufo

Track Listing

1. Warm Sound
2. Home
3. Somersault
4. Over Our Heads
5. Passing By
6. When It Falls
7. The Space Between
8. Look Up
9. In Time
10. Speed Dial No. 2
11. Morning Songs

The bar was set pretty high when Zero 7 released their debut Simple Things in 2001. With their blend of soulful vocals layered over ambient beats, producers Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker soon found themselves the cherry on top of the trip hop cake. More interesting than Morcheeba, more accessible than Portishead and more organic than Air, Zero 7 arrived fully formed and with seemingly limitless potential.

It took over three years for the followup, When It Falls, to cut wax, and on it Zero 7 have taken the formula introduced on their debut and crafted it into something even more resilient. Using many of the same vocalists employed on Simple Things- Sia Furler, Mozez, Sophie Barker and others- Binns and Hardaker have delivered a work inexplicably consistent, especially when one considers the number and range of vocalists, and the manner in which the tracks are collaged and woven together. Acid jazz and funk mesh with electronica and AOR pop to create a seamless tapestry of sound that is as soothing as it is intriguing. Critics who decry “more of the same” are missing the bigger picture, and focusing on this as a collection of songs instead of a soundtrack to some fictional dreamscape.

When It Falls opens with the appropriately titled Warm Sound, anchored by the lush Richie Havens meets SoCal soul vocals of Mozez. It’s a soul track with a twist, anchored by layered Moog and Wurlitzer over a cascading flute- definitely new territory for a soul tune. More importantly it’s instantly catchy, with the repeated “that’s how it feels, yeah” burrowing its way into the listeners subconscious.

Sophie Barker, who arguably was the go-to vocalist on Simple Things, delivers again with her performances on Passing By and In Time. On Passing By, her approach is decidedly down tempo, with mirrored vocals soothing the listener as Barker croons “I’m only passing by.” On In Time, we find Barker listing more towards a mellifluous and enchanting lullaby. It’s a sleepy track by nature, but one that provides enough interesting wrinkles to hold its own.

On Home, vocalist Tina Dico (who did not appear on Simple Things) arrives with a powerful vocal performance on this ambient jazz track. The Chis Botti-esque trumpet solo here is arresting, and quickly catapults the track into one of the finest on the disc. Sia Furler’s haunting vocals step up next, care of the track Somersault. Furler’s jazzy, slightly accented voice and the track sports the disc’s most memorable and catchy chorus- “You put my feet back on the ground- Did you know you brought me around- You were sweet and you were sound- You saved me.” It’s an amazing achievement for a 7 minute track. But regardless of who is singing, all of the tracks here are infused with a vocal warmth that gives the disc a surprising consistency.

If there is any weakness here, it can be found on the somewhat languorous The Pace Between, a track that seems wear out its welcome about three minutes too soon. It is a pleasant enough track, with Dico’s voice drifting over a summery brass and woodwind arrangement, with a great Rhodes solo near the end to boot. But in the end, it ends up being just a little too undifferentiated.

When It Falls manages to be smooth and relaxing without falling into the narcopleptic trap so many other trip hop releases seem prone to. Rarely are releases like these, almost compilations in their construction, as cohesive or compelling as When It Falls. For almost an hour we are treated to a luminous soundtrack that flows and changes directions like a lucid summer dream. Perhaps When It Falls ultimately requires more patience than Zero 7’s debut, but in the end the listener is certainly rewarded with something larger than the sum of its parts. This is certainly one of 2004’s highlights.

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