In this age of niche marketing it’s refreshing to encounter an album that defies the usual categories. Zero 7’s Simple Things could comfortably find its way in to a number of record store racks — soul, jazz or funk, conceivably even world — yet I discovered my copy lodged in the dance section, a testament to club culture’s open door policy: if it’s got a groove, grab it.
But the cross-the-board appeal of Simple Things — it made a strong run for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize in 2001 and is up for a Brit award in 2002 — might actually be something of a curse in disguise. The albums that stand the test of time — from Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde to Radiohead’s OK Computer — tend to pose initial difficulties for the listener: they tempt you to resist at first, then, eventually, entrance you.
In contrast, Zero 7’s debut collection quickly lures you, mirage-like, to its moods and textures — mellifluous in melody, lush and layered. It brings to mind the vogue for smooth fruit drinks: sweet, rich and blended to a flavoured pulp. In fact, for all its masterful arrangements, for all its breath-taking production, Simple Things remains little more than ultra-sophisticated easy listening.
Not that that, in these postmodern times, can even be construed as real criticism. The rehabillitation of Bacharach, the contemporary zest for mid-century lounge and thriller movie soundtracks in the John Barry mode, have all meant that music that is easy on the ears does not, by necessity, easy on the mind.
Tasteful has become the back-handed complimented of the day and all of the tracks on this album have that discerning sheen. But at least a trio of the tracks rise above that particular description: the pearl-like musical settings on the tunes “Destiny”, “Distractions” and “In the Waiting Line” carry just enough of a hint of grit to rise above the finely-honed, but ultimate mundanity, of much that surrounds them.
In each case, it is the addition of female vocals that lend a torch song quality to the proceedings: Sia Furler and Sophie Barker share the lead on the hypnotising “Destiny”, then each take a solo role — Furler on “Distractions” and Barker on “In the Waiting Line”. These contributions are a disconcerting mixture of the assertive and the vulnerable, the kind of schizophrenic stylings that great soul singers from Aretha to Millie Jackson, Angie Stone to Alicia Keys have brought to their performances over the decades.
Neither Furler nor Barker, who each have co-writing credits on the album, are showcased in quite that way — their distinctive vocal parts are mixed quite deeply, coiled in the compositional swirl. In fact, the results are a strange marriage of subdued white gospel and trip hop; echoes of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons reverberate.
As for the rest — all pleasant, car-cruising-at-night stuff — we’re largely faced with classy background muzak. “Give It Away” milks one delicious riff, entwining ripples of electric piano with a sweeping string section — catchy but rather anaemic funk lite from the Mike Post stable of TV themes — “Out of Town” has a mawkish yet mellow trumpet theme which would not be out of place, again, in an urban cop flick while “End Theme” ploughs a similar furrow — sexy, cinematic phrasing.
But I still have the sense that Simple Things won’t have that crucial staying power. I’ve already heard it used in upmarket bars and designer restaurants as the scene-setting soundtrack for drinkers and diners. Its inoffensive yet broadly anonymous voice, like buried sounds that haunt us in the supermarket aisle, brushes our consciousness but evaporates all too swiftly.