Album Review: Zero 7 – Yeah Ghost

In the eight years since the release of their stunningly lush debut, Simple Things, English electronica duo Zero 7 (production whizzes Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker) has been a mainstay of the chillout music scene, gracing compilations and film soundtracks alongside the likes of Air and Thievery Corporation. During that time, the band perfected a signature sound: ambient soundscapes, breathy female vocals, and looped atmospheric sounds.

But if there was a knock against the talented Brits, it was that their sound could be too chillaxed for its own good. This was the case on 2004’s merely adequate When It Falls. Things improved for 2006’s The Garden, but that album, too, hewed fairly close to the duo’s traditional formula.

On its latest release – the eclectic, if uneven Yeah Ghost – Zero 7 depart significantly from its normal routine. The change is helped along by the absence of the band’s longtime collaborator Sia, who sang on all of the group’s previous albums (also absent are vocalists Mozez and Jose Gonzalez). Three new singers step in to fill the void: Jackie Daniels, Martha Tilston, and London-based Zimbabwean, Eska Mtungwazi. And on “Everything Up (Zizou),” Binns takes on vocal duties himself. The result is an album with a diverse, vibrant sound, one that occasionally hits the band’s previous highs. But the new diversity of sound makes it hard to find one overarching theme or sound that makes the album cohere as a whole. It’s an enjoyable collection of songs that doesn’t quite seem to fit together.

“Swing,” which features Daniels on vocals, is delectable electro-pop with handclaps that accent the song’s shimmering chorus. On lead single “Medicine Man”, Mtungwazi sings over a bed of disco-fied beats, which marks a significant departure from the band’s traditional sound. But it’s Mtungwazi’s voice that gives the chorus a heft not previously seen on Zero 7 songs. Indeed, her presence infuses the band’s sound with a new life and soulfulness. The rave up “Sleeper” (another song on which Mtungwazi sings) is one more example of the band moving out of its downtempo comfort zone.

“Everything Up (Zizou)”, a paean inspired by retired French football star Zinedine Zidane (nicknamed Zizou), is probably the album’s best marriage of the old and new Zero 7, with trippy sound effects linked up to a skittering beat. Binns’ vocals are more than passable; they’re buoyant. (Perhaps he was happy to finally move from behind the studio controls.)

“Pop Art Blue” is easily the highlight of the album. A confection of electronic chamber pop with a hint of folk, the song builds momentum until layered vocals intertwine with percussion in mesmerizing fashion. The glitchy “Ghost Symbol”, with its vaguely Eastern soundscape of mangled vocals, recalls Kruder and Dorfmeister or Tosca.

As on previous albums, the band also includes a handful of instrumentals, the best of which is “All of Us”. A largely ambient piece, the song builds momentum via layers of sound, channeling Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada. Muted chants and eerie sonic effects punctuate the two-minute “Solastalgia”. “The Road”, on which Mtungwazi once again takes vocal duties, is a meditative, gospel-influenced hymn that echoes the band’s work with Mozez.

Rounding out the album are two remixes of “Everything Up (Zizou)”: Joker and Ginz’ gleaming take on the song, and Mock and Toof’s more traditional techno treatment.

Four albums into its career, Zero 7 still has an ear for a good pop song. And though the album doesn’t hang together as well as previous efforts, it’s hard to quibble with their curiosity and desire for experimentation.

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Yeah Ghost


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