Happy 15th Anniversary to Zero 7’s debut album Simple Things, originally released in the UK April 23, 2001.
Years before online music streaming became the discovery channel du jour for music heads like myself, record store listening stations were a godsend, enabling customers to test-run the wares before shelling out their hard-earned cash to take the goods home with them. The Tower Records on the corner of 4th & Broadway in Manhattan housed many of these stations, but one in particular always yielded magnetic sway for me each time I walked through the doors: the imports-only station.
Indeed, it was at this station that I first heard Zero 7’s spellbinding debut album Simple Things in the spring of 2001 and fell instantly in love, gladly handing over my $25 for the CD emblazoned with the yellow circular “Import” sticker before exiting the store.
Aspiring sound engineers who cut their chops in UK studios for years before co-founding Zero 7 in the latter half of the 1990s, the unassuming duo of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker initially bonded over their mutual musical passions.
“I remember Henry coming up to me in the street, and he had these headphones with big orange foam,” Hardaker recalled during a 2006 interview with the Amsterdam based FaceCulture. “And he was like ‘hey, listen to this,’ and he was playing me some old soul tune, something I’d never heard that I really liked. And then we started talking about music. And then we started hanging out through both being interested in music.”
The pair’s first formal introduction under the Zero 7 moniker arrived in 1997 when they were commissioned to remix “Climbing Up the Walls,” the ninth track on Radiohead’s landmark LP OK Computer. Upon refining their sound during the ensuing few years, Binns and Hardaker released their debut five-track EP1 in early 2000 and its successor EP2 later that year. The recordings included a handful of compositions that would subsequently appear on their first proper long player Simple Things, released via Ultimate Dilemma Records.
While the two EPs heralded the group’s penchant for crafting lush, multi-textured soundscapes full of melodic warmth and cinematic flourishes, their ambitious musical vision was fully solidified across the expanse of Simple Things.
While critics and fans alike have attempted to classify their music in constraining ways, Binns and Hardaker have always been notoriously (and refreshingly) self-deprecating and quick to downplay any grandiose meaning or calculated machinations behind their organic approach to music-making. “Soundtracks? Romance? Melancholy? God what have we done?” Hardaker facetiously contemplated during a 2001 interview with Seven magazine. “People are always trying to find out what we’re about, and the answer’s a fucking confusing, erratic compound of lots of things. But I don’t know where it comes from.”
One thing that’s undeniable, however, is Zero 7’s keen instincts when it comes to selecting dynamic, soulful vocalists who mesh seamlessly with their kaleidoscopic sonic palette. While half of the 12 tracks included on the original UK version of Simple Things (the US version released in November 2001 included two additional bonus cuts, “Salt Water Sound” and “Spinning”) are instrumentals, the other half contain vocals from a quartet of singers.
Most notably, of course, Simple Things represented the first time that many of us were seduced by the unique vocal charms of Sia Furler. Unbeknownst to many then and now, the Australian singer-songwriter actually released her debut album OnlySee more than three years before Simple Things emerged, though she has been quick to dismiss her first LP as “the worst trip-hop shit you’ll ever hear.” And while she has since earned worldwide acclaim on the strength of a consistently productive solo songwriting & recording career, Sia’s earliest collaborations with Zero 7 remain some of Sia’s finest accomplishments to date.
“The first time I ever met [Binns and Hardaker] I told them, ‘I’m tired of working with people who smoke loads of weed and take two weeks to record a drum sound,’” Sia confessed to Seven magazine in 2001. “And they were just like ‘well you’re in the perfect environment. We like a swift pint now and again, but that’s it. We don’t drink or smoke while we work.’ It was a match made in heaven.” A match that produced two of Simple Things’ most heavenly songs, one admittedly more universally familiar than the other.
Released as the album’s second single, the wistful, daydream-inducing torch song “Destiny” explores the disenchantment of being separated from your paramour and the yearning to be reunited. The ballad is a perfect showcase for Sia’s idiosyncratic phrasing and also famously sheds some light into how she copes with solitude while on the road (“I lie awake / I've gone to ground / I'm watching porn / In my hotel dressing gown”).
The fifth and final official single delivered from album nearly a year after its release, the solemn “Distractions” finds Sia attempting to reconcile her conflicted feelings for the object of her affection. Depending on your interpretation, the song may reflect the confessions of a woman who is reluctant to commit to the man she loves and/or skeptical that the clichés of marriage (big house, children, pets, cars, money) will be able to sustain their relationship in the end.
Unfairly overshadowed by the attention, albeit deserved, bestowed upon Sia, London-bred singer-songwriter Sophie Barker’s vocal contributions, and one in particular, also prove revelatory in their own right. She joins Sia on the chorus of “Destiny” and stuns across the subdued US bonus track “Spinning,” but she truly shines on the exquisitely executed “In the Waiting Line,” arguably the album’s finest moment. Atop Binns & Hardaker’s Rhodes piano-blessed arrangement, Barker gracefully laments our futile attempts to find meaning within the monotony and malaise of the insipid daily grind that imprisons so many of us.
Additional vocal highlights include the late soulman Mozez’ poignant introspection on the album opener and lead single “I Have Seen,” which glides along a percussive, acoustic guitar-driven melody replete with gorgeous, string-laden effects. Also worthy of praise are Mozez’ emotive takes on the slinky groove of the title track and the uplifting “This World.”
The sublime instrumental offerings “Give It Away,” “Out of Town,” and “Polaris” contribute to the sonically cohesive nature of the album, though it is the imaginative ode to childbirth “Likufanele” that remains the hidden gem of the whole affair. An ambitiously conceived hybrid of the album’s instrumental and vocal fare, “Likufanele” melds various instruments (vibraphone, synths, flutes, scratches, and the ubiquitous Rhodes) with the soaring Zulu/Ndebele vocals provided by the Philani Mothers, a group of nurses from South Africa. In the simplest of terms, it sounds amazing.
In the months following the release of Simple Things, too many music journalists and critics alike myopically pigeonholed Zero 7 into lazy genre-specific classifications like “post-trip-hop,” “electro-lounge,” or our favorite of the bunch, “chillout.” And don’t even get us started on the presumptuous, loathsome drivel spewed by one curmudgeonly Pitchfork scribe, who incredulously condemned the album as “schmaltzy lite-R&B crooning,” “hipster easy listening,” and a “blatant freaking ripoff” of Air’s Moon Safari. Um, pretentious, much?
Very much to the contrary, Zero 7’s multi-dimensional approach to songcraft is far more intriguing and transcendent than the confines of such misguided categorization and critique. As evidenced not only by the Mercury Prize nominated Simple Things, but also by the duo’s follow-up albums When it Falls (2004), The Garden (2006), and Yeah Ghost (2009), Zero 7 and their class-act collaborators have always made music that indulges the heart, mind, and soul. And for this, we should be eternally grateful.