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Revisiting: Zero 7 - Simple Things

In the latest in our series looking at classic albums from decades past, we explore the opulent sound of UK production duo Zero 7’s Platinum-selling trip-hop debut.

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Released in 2001, Zero 7’s debut album, Simple Things, is an ambitious production packed with beautiful melodies and infectious beats. It’s a record designed to transport and captivate listeners, with meticulous mastering and production, but accusations of plagiarism have somewhat tainted its reputation. 

In a 2002 review, Pitchfork magazine’s Rob Mitchum dismissed Simple Things as a mediocre imitation of French group AIR’s 1998 classic, Moon Safari. “I use the word 'homage', though I could just as easily use the phrase blatant freaking ripoff,” he wrote.  

While there are stylistic similarities between the two albums, however, it feels a shame to dismiss Simple Things’ charms on this basis. It’s packed with excellent songwriting and memorable tunes that encapsulate a sense of new-millennium optimism. And while there are no standout songs with unforgettable lyrics, its unique and special mood gives it a certain transportive power.  

Although sometimes disparaged as ‘elevator music’ or ‘musical syrup’, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker’s blend of ambient music has aged well. Simple Things avoids locking into one particular genre, and perhaps for this reason, it doesn’t feel dated more than two decades on. 

“A bricolage of musical styles, it was underpinned by a meticulously produced, largely electronic soundscape”

The album’s abstract cover art, with its sparse white background and warm-toned silhouettes, reflected a growing shift in pop culture towards a clean and minimal aesthetic that felt almost futuristic (see the design of Apple’s first iPod, which launched a few months later). This clean, minimal and futuristic feel was also reflected in the record’s sound: a bricolage of musical styles from the previous five decades of pop, jazz and soul, it was underpinned by a meticulously produced, largely electronic soundscape that was absolutely state-of-the-art at the time.  

The engineering and production are extremely impressive from a technical standpoint, and seem to revel in the shiny perfection of digital audio. Simple Things is squeaky-clean to listen to, full of lavishly recorded Fender Rhodes keyboards and meticulously sampled acoustic drums and cymbals, neatly looped by drum machines. Set behind this are lush string and brass parts, plus assorted squelchy early analogue synth noises, all of which create a sound that is lovely to listen to even now.

“There are touches of jazz, flashes of funk and smatterings of soul, all set to a sparse electronic backdrop”

“The masters of comedown cool”, is how one British music writer described Zero 7. That neatly describes the downtempo chill of Simple Things – it’s electronica meets easy listening, sometimes tinged with echoes of 60s French pop songs, like an early Saint Etienne album. Its mood veers between ethereal, ambient and contemplative to downright melancholic. There are touches of jazz, flashes of funk and smatterings of soul, all set to a sparse electronic backdrop. Shades of late 90s/early 2000s British club culture are mixed with a gentle ambient feel, plus flecks of acid jazz and soul. 

Despite its name, Simple Things is not a simple album. When Zero 7 first performed it live at Big Chill festival and London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, it took a 15-piece band and banks of electronics to recreate the studio magic.  

Each track segueways beautifully into the next, allowing listeners to fully immersive themselves in its delicate opulence. This was, and still is, and a luxurious, sophisticated sounding album, and it’s no surprise that it was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and championed by Gilles Peterson. 

“The formula is simple but effective, and to their great credit, Binns and Hardaker know precisely when to stop”

Simple Things also features excellent guest vocalists such as Mozez, who sings on ‘I Have Seen’ and the album’s title track. His sultry but soulful tones give both songs an eerie quality. Sia Furler brings a plaintive sound to ‘Distractions’, while a then-unsigned Sophie Barker makes ‘Destiny’ her own. Then there are the various instrumentals, which went on to become staple sounds at many a European cafe bar. In song after song, crisp drums meet a thick, upfront bass sound, while gentle guitar work is gilded with vintage organ and synth sounds. The formula is simple but effective, and to their great credit, Binns and Hardaker know precisely when to stop. There’s no over-embellishment with vocoders or other such frivolous effects. 

The production, credited as being by Zero 7, is as good as it was possible to get at the time. It joins a long list of albums that could not have sounded better with the music recording technology of the day. Think Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Steely Dan’s Aja, Roxy Music’s Avalon and Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. Each instrument is meticulously captured and then pieced together by computer, be it a guitar part, vocal line or hi-hat cymbal strike. Three guitars were used, four vocalists, two trumpet players and two drummers. The result is a veritable jigsaw puzzle of sound – one that slots together perfectly and effortlessly while concealing its own complexity. Many samples were used (the final album was itself sampled widely), and engineer Kevin Metcalfe kept quality standards extremely high throughout. 

“The recording itself is very clean, and highly textured”

In terms of mastering, Simple Things sounds great on a wide range of systems, from humble car stereos and cheap wine bar PA rigs, to cost-no-object home audiophile set ups. That’s because the recording itself is very clean, and highly textured. This also means a wealth of extra details can be enjoyed when listening on great hi-fi system. Vocals appear more vibrant, the acoustic bass guitar sounds fuller and creamier, and the electric organ and synth parts gain a lovely lustre. At the same time, the soundstage seems to open up and fall back further. The original CD pressing [Ultimate Dilemma UDRCD016] – which is now available on most streaming services – sounds great in its own right, but silver disc specialists should go for the even better Japanese pressing [Sony Records International SRCS 2524] if they can.

It’s easy to deride Simple Things as a kind of millennial hipster music, but it’s striking that it still sounds fresh, crisp and modern more than 20 years later. The album’s compositional quality still shines through, and it sounds great from beginning to end. Just like AIR’s Moon Safari, which has aged equally well, it should continue to beguile listeners for many years to come.

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