For Zero 7's work thus far, the praise has been shared in prior reviews, and I'm sure will be repeated by others. The UK act's debut album "Simple Things" was a true classic, with the second album "When It Falls" coming close to its predecessor's greatness. 2007's "The Garden" was a tad more abstract, but still had some very strong entrees to its credit. And as if all that wasn't enough, Zero 7 are a GREAT act to see live on stage. Their deft merging of electronics, organic instrumentation and an array of unique vocalists added some welcome warmth and depth to what some have criticized as a shallow and emotionless genre.
All this leads up to their fourth effort, 2009's "Yeah Ghost", which wipes the canvas clean and makes the artist virtually unrecognizable. Sam Hardaker and Harvey Binns are still on board as the prime shapers of the music, but they've decided to move toward a sound that's often cold, sometimes abrasive, and too concerned with artsiness instead of the emotional vibes that flow from the music itself. Those 'simple things' that we once adored are now more complicated, and the new lineup of vocalists don't allow the music to come to life like they did in the past. The most notable difference is the absence of singer Sia Furler, who not only added a tinge of tortured soul-diva intensity, but the character that she infused allowed Zero 7 to be more than just a throwaway act with a hit single on a WB soundtrack and nothing more. Other Zero 7 collaborators like Mozez, Tina Dico, Jose Gonzalez and Sophie Barker were solid foils when it came to adding some skin and bones to the digital fabric of their signature sound. The vivid textures and substance that made those songs great are bleached out and sanitized on this album, and often it's so harsh that the notable voids leave you with nothing but buzzing eardrums and a gaping jaw.
Entering the fray on "Yeah Ghost" is vocalist Eska, who does little to separate herself from the rest of today's neo-soul and gospel-tinged warblers, and serves as the oil to Hardaker and Binns' water. They make for a bad match because the overreaching nature of Eska's often grating voice competes with the backing music instead of complementing it. Other vocalists (including Binns himself) create drifting impressions that don't come close to the indelible aura of Sia's voice or any other past singer you'd find on their three prior releases. The overall sound is so impeccably produced that you'd swear the whole thing was done with sequenced loops and ProTools instead of live musicians. The stuttering bleeps and skips that surfaced on songs like "Futures" from the past record are evident here, but they come through as an unwelcome disruption instead of a strong element within the song. By the time "Yeah Ghost" wheezes to a halt and elicits its final blip, you're left with a combination of indifference and annoyance, two dynamics that I never thought I'd feel from a Zero 7 record.
Bottom line: If you loved the first three releases, and especially if you've seen them perform live, you will having nothing but deep-seated hatred in your soul with "Yeah Ghost". This is Zero 7 going through a common artists' phase where they alienate their base listenership with a total about-face in sound, hoping that new fans are possibly attracted. It's been done before by others, but it's truly disappointing when the faithful have to cover their ears in disgust when something so repulsive sees the light of day.
Do yourself a favor and sit this one out. It's easily the most disappointing album of 2009 so far.